Are research infrastructures the answer to all our problems?

18 Sep 2018 | News

Embracing a global view of EU research infrastructures could boost science diplomacy and break down walls put up by divisive politics. But new rules on cooperation and more funding are needed to deliver the vision

EU commissioner for research and innovation Carlos Moedas says “science diplomacy can solve global challenges”. Photo: European Commission

The EU could leverage the billions it has spent on research capabilities to foster broad collaborations and help solve global challenges, but currently there is a lack of clear rules and good practice for doing so and that is limiting the impact on society, according to delegates at the international conference for research infrastructures in Vienna last week.

Still, the optimism in the room made it seem research infrastructures are a panacea for all global malaise. They could fix anything from geopolitical tensions, brain drain and limp economic growth, whilst bolstering the EU’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

“Science diplomacy can solve global challenges,” said EU commissioner for research and innovation Carlos Moedas. Most problems facing humanity are international and science and research infrastructures are neutral tools for bringing people who normally do not talk to each other, around the table. “Research infrastructures are the assets for science diplomacy,” said Moedas.

For Sanja Damjanovic, minister of science in Montenegro, research infrastructures could be a route to “mitigate tensions” in the Balkans, reverse the brain drain and recover the tradition of technology development in southern and eastern Europe. “The only way to bring back our people is to have a first-class research facility,” Damjanovic said.

Similarly, Yuri Balega, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences said, “The world is not in good shape, but science can break walls created by politicians.”

Mikhail Popov, deputy director at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow agreed, saying, “Science collaborations can secure bridges between Russia and the EU.” That would help overcome tensions spawned by economic sanctions, he said.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang Burtscher, deputy director general for research and innovation at the European Commission said, “Research infrastructures are a key [requirement] to compete in a globalised world.”

Better coordination

Policy makers and representatives of the world’s largest research infrastructures were less effusive. To meet these lofty goals, there must be better coordination of rules and good practice on how to use research facilities to maximise their impact on society, and also more public investment. 

The EU “needs a global vision on research infrastructures,” said Jean David Malo, director for open science and innovation at the European Commission.

The first step is to decide whether the EU is “open to cooperation on a global scale,” Burtscher said, arguing there is a big difference between having an open research and innovation framework in Europe and expanding the same framework to a global level. “Even at the EU level there are possibilities to have more focused cooperation,” said Burtscher.

“Researchers are people who love their infrastructure, and some are reluctant to share it with others,” said Heinz Fassmann, Austrian minister for education, science and research. Fassman argues that research infrastructures should have more “fair and transparent” rules of use based on competitiveness and merit. 

A further problem lies in the management and access to data generated in these infrastructures, with Burtscher noting there is “a plethora of standards” which are a bottleneck for scientific collaborations both inside Europe and abroad.

The Commission is bringing stakeholders together to negotiate rules for fair data access, in particular through the open science cloud initiative, but, “this is not an easy exercise,” said Burtscher. “In Europe we are quite proud that we have the best practices for delivering synergies of research infrastructures, but even in an integrated place like EU, it’s a complex issue.”

Several difficult questions remain unanswered in the quest of making infrastructures available for international collaborative science projects. They include: Who pays for the time facilities sit idle between projects? Which are the best booking and time recording systems? In the case of life sciences and biotechnologies, what standards need to be put in place for the safe delivery of samples? Do we need transnational research institutions to support infrastructures?

Researchers envision an international data commons, in which a collection of computing applications would enable them to discover, access and analyse major research datasets

But that requires coordinated operations, funding and procurement across research infrastructures. “We do not have [this] today, especially across disciplines,” said Charlotte Warakaulle, director for international relations at CERN.

Is it worth the effort?

Few taxpayers can make the link between a particle accelerator and a PET scan.  But policy makers too, are “not aware of the societal benefits of research infrastructures,” said Burtscher.

That is mainly because the return of investment for society “is invisible to your eyes,” said Moedas. However, this should not discourage governments from investing in research infrastructures, he said, referring to a favourite example, of the construction of the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator in Texas, which was axed in 1993 due to public concerns over the return on investment.

That incentivised European countries to invest in the large hadron collider at CERN, an infrastructure that since its launch in 2008 has been the source of scientific breakthroughs and innovations. “The one place where we think like this at political level, is Europe,” Moedas said.

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