Conduct more breakthrough research in Europe

23 May 2012 | Viewpoint
Scientific breakthroughs arise when excellent researchers are given the freedom to explore beyond the bounds of formulaic R&D programmes. A Howard Hughes-type grant scheme for Europe would promote this, says Gunnar Öquist

Fostering more ground-breaking research in Europe must be put at the top of the political agenda in Brussels. The reasons are clear - on the one hand good science is essential to increase the economic competitiveness of Europe. But even more critically, the current over-exploitation of resources around the globe is not sustainable.

Today, we do not have the technical or social means to run our economies on a sustainable footing, but I am pretty sure that it will be societies that emphasise research that underpins new discoveries, new ideas and new innovations - that will foster the kind of ingenuity necessary to find rational solutions to these problems.

Societies that emphasise research and innovation with a focus on excellence and pioneering discoveries – that go well beyond our experience and knowledge to date – will give hope for the future.

Balancing research strategies

To do this, we now need to exploit the full potential of scientific research.

The discussion on how to extract the maximum returns from scientific research must not be hung up on a discussion of “top-down” or “bottom-up” research strategies. Both approaches are important and needed, since over time they address questions with different conceptual constraints.

Thus the two strategies are complementary to each other, and in the long run neither of them can be successful without the support of the other.

The problem is that in Europe today the “bottom-up” approach, which puts the focus on individual talent is lagging behind. This trend is coupled with steadily increasing demands for efficiency and productivity, favouring incremental research of good, publishable quality.

The ‘publish or perish’ imperative undermines the quality of research and discourages ground-breaking discoveries or innovations. Today, politicians in Europe and worldwide primarily view research as a tool to solve problems. As a result, research programmes are invariably formulated in a strategic, targeted fashion.

Beyond the established paradigms

Although well-motivated, such research programmes are constrained by the established paradigms, and therefore do not exploit the full potential of scientific research.

To release this potential, we need to recognise the rebellious side of scientific research, providing individuals the freedom to challenge and question established views, to look for new paths into the future. This is the way to open up new, unforeseen opportunities - opportunities that cannot be predicted, and often not even imagined.

The most talented individuals must be given the trust and freedom to explore and question without any other objective than to mark out the route to new knowledge that will in turn fuel more targeted and strategic research efforts.

The experience of more than 100 years of Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry and physiology or medicine, highlight that the “bottom-up” approach - of supporting talented individuals with novel ideas - that has the highest probability of delivering breakthrough science. To foster true excellence we must therefore provide pioneering individuals with the trust and freedom to look in new directions; to address important, but difficult and risky questions.

The proposals for Horizon 2020 show the EU now is moving towards a more considered research policy, with a focus on individuals, excellence and creativity in science and technology.

Pioneering excellence

From a frontier research perspective, the European Research Council (ERC), is vital and is today a well-functioning instrument, promoting excellence in research. However, I think that one must push even harder to open up new frontiers, by supporting what I would call individual pioneering excellence. I would like to see “Howard Hughes-type” grant schemes being established at the European level.

Such programmes should be developed both for senior and career scientists who demonstrate exceptional talent, commitment and imagination. Once fully developed, the programme should cover all areas of scientific research, but it could start in one field, for example, life sciences.

Investigators for the programme should be recruited internationally and selected through rigorous competition. Those who make the cut should be provided with sufficient resources, time and freedom to pursue challenging and risky questions – beyond what is possible today.

The ERC could be a suitable hub for such a pioneering programme that puts the focus on individual talent rather than project proposals. With such a scheme, Europe would be able to attract the best scientists from across the world, not only increasing over time Europe’s economic competitiveness, but also strengthening the role of Europe in paving the way to a sustainable future for Planet Earth.

Gunnar Öquist, is former Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

This Viewpoint is based on comments made on April 20th to a Danish EU Presidency conference, ‘Excellence Revisited – The Value of Excellence’, at Aarhus University

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