Reshape research policy to drive innovation

23 Jan 2013 | Viewpoint
Universities have a pivotal role to play in responding to the Grand Challenges, fostering innovation and creating growth and social wellbeing. How should these institutions respond to this task? asks Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen, President of Euroscience and Rector of Aarhus University, Denmark

In September 2012 the European Research Area Committee published the evaluation, “Peer-review of the Danish Research and Innovation system: Strengthening innovation performance”. The recommendations made in this evaluation are reflected in a new innovation strategy recently launched by the Danish Government. The strategy takes its starting point in the Grand Challenges facing society today, setting out these main action points:

  • A stronger focus on cooperation between research institutions and businesses - through partnerships
  • An acknowledgement of education as a wellspring of innovation, and as having a leading role in promoting entrepreneurship
  • A stronger international focus that recognises our global interdependency
  • A simplified structure for the allocation of research funding
  • A better use of public procurement as a driver for innovation

Universities in particular have an obligation to address this agenda. Society expects universities to take on this responsibility and to contribute to innovation and the creation of growth and welfare. The interesting question is: How do universities respond to this task?

My key message is that this calls for strong and dedicated leadership. If university leaders do not prioritise this task, nothing will change. Alternatively, in a worst case scenario, the political system will impose unnecessary demands on the performance of universities.

A change of mindset

Let me highlight five observations in this context:

First of all, a change of mindset is needed. We need to clearly communicate the societal challenges and emphasise that all scientists have a responsibility to define their research activities in terms of the social context. At my home university in Aarhus we have coined the term Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR), and we are currently considering how a SSR strategy can be adopted.

A key element will be to adopt a bottom-up approach and to re-evaluate our curricula. Do we actually encourage our students to state their knowledge in a global context? Student awareness may be raised, for example through practical courses at Bachelor and Master levels, and by offering support to student entrepreneurs, coaching and skills development, providing seed capital, and other measures.

Additionally, we need to engage in a dialogue with the external funding bodies - public as well as private. By joining forces we can design research projects with the potential to make real scientific breakthroughs, and to gain recognition of the fact that in this context there is no distinction between basic and strategic research. The real challenge is to be able to identify prospective research areas which could lead to scientific and/or technological breakthroughs.

An interdisciplinary approach

 The Grand Challenges are by definition very complex and call for an interdisciplinary approach. We need to accommodate these aspects in the way we organise and finance the research sector. At Aarhus University we have recently completed an academic development process with the aim of removing barriers that stand between different research areas, and thus enabling researchers to cooperate across fields of study.

More autonomy and accountability

Historically, major breakthroughs were the result of creativity and the freedom to pursue the unexpected, sometimes within a strategic framework. We need to recognise and stimulate this by ensuring there is not only adequate funding, but also more autonomy and accountability - and by realising that a long-term perspective is necessary.

Consolidation of networks

Universities are increasingly seizing opportunities to cooperate with businesses and other partners, creating innovative clusters, engaging representatives of the business community on advisory boards and employer panels, and strengthening the community network. Such collaborative activities need to be further reinforced and be integrated into the strategic plans of universities.

Support for increasing investments in innovation, research and education

Of late, a number of key European players have issued statements raising concerns that the proposed €80 billion Horizon 2020 budget does not meet the level of investment in research and innovation that is required if Europe is to remain competitive.

Statements from Euroscience and the European University Association (EUA) were issued at the same time as the Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE) published a petition supported by many of the leading research organisations in Europe under the headline “A top priority for Europe: secure the EU research and innovation budget!”

When it comes to investing in universities, research, education and innovation other regions in the world – particularly Asia – have already presented ambitious strategies and are not waiting for Europe to catch up. Therefore we must make it a top priority that our policy makers commit to ensuring investments in research and innovation.

Excellence in all we do

In April 2012, Aarhus University hosted the official EU-Presidency Conference on Excellence and the Horizon 2020 program. The outcome of the conference is summarised in the Aarhus Declaration (, which was adopted by the participants. Without aiming at excellence in all that we do, it would be in vain.

And a key message in the Aarhus Declaration is, “In the search for solutions and in the creative quest for fundamental breakthroughs, cutting edge education and creative innovation, excellence in research is a sine qua non”.

This is an message to keep at the forefront of our minds in our effort to find answers to the challenges we are confronting at present– and to those challenges that we have not yet foreseen.

Lauritz B. Holm-Nielsen is President of Euroscience and Rector of Aarhus University, Denmark


Euroscience: EU must invest in growth and jobs and cut unfair agricultural subsidies (

EUA Statement Addressed to Heads of State and Government Attending the ‘EU Budget Summit’ (

“No Cut on Research”-petition (

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