EUROPE: Basic research gets a new champion

Basic academic research - freed from commercial or industrial goals - has a new champion in Europe: Bernd Huber, the new chairman of the League of European Research Universities. Huber is president of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (Munich) in Germany and has been appointed head of Europe's elite research higher education institutions for the next three years. Speaking exclusively to University World News, he outlined three priorities in his new job. Top of the list, he said, was encouraging politicians to take basic research more seriously.

"I intend to intensify our contacts within the European Union, lobbying the European Commission. We have to make clear to the politicians that basic research is important. Politicians have a somewhat functional view of universities: they make inputs and they want outputs in terms of innovations and patents - results that can be shifted to the industrial sectors, so new companies can be founded - and there's a dynamic process."

Huber said politicians had placed too much emphasis on applied research, reflected for instance in the controversial establishment of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology or EIT.

"Basic research has both direct and indirect economic effects that are very important for the future of a society," he stressed. Scientific discoveries in one decade could lay dormant for years before they were picked up and used in a crucial application.

Huber, himself an economist, said research into arts, the humanities and social sciences should also receive priority attention from politicians. "The intellectual atmosphere [generated] creates academic skills," he said. Inspiring creative intelligence in all academic disciplines was "a public good".

As such, Huber said he regarded the European Research Council (ERC), formed to fund basic research in the EU, as "exactly the kind of research support that is a role model for the future."

"It's competitive. It's about economic excellence. It grants funds to young researchers and it's a very, very good development for Europe," he said.

Huber accepted there had been some teething troubles in the first selection procedures for ERC grants but predicted these would be sorted out. More important in the longer term was increasing the ERC's financing.

"The funding of the ERC has to be expanded over the coming years," he said. As for the EIT, although he found its initial concept "highly problematic", he was happy with its eventual establishment as a body based on using networks and providing support. These initiatives would improve support for growing universities in Eastern Europe.

Huber said his second priority would be to increase contacts with these "developing universities who have not yet reached the stage where they can join LERU". The league's 20-strong membership includes the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Zürich and Amsterdam, and specialist institutions such as the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Contacts with research-based higher education institutions in Eastern Europe would be intensified under his watch, he said, even though there was no guarantee new formal members from the region would be admitted. "We don't want to be a closed shop or an elite circle."

The LERU is keen to see the quality of research raised across the continent. Huber said the issue of assessing research quality within European universities would be the third priority of his chairmanship.

More work was needed on quality management and quality benchmarking models. "We want to do more," he said, referring to the assessment of output in the arts, humanities and social sciences research as well as science.

But he was keen to ensure that such work did not create rigid assessment models and potentially unreliable league tables, rather that such evaluations acknowledged the immensely complex work of universities. He said simpler models were too mechanical. "We need a kind of vision for a university," he said.

This was particularly important to give rectors and vice-chancellors goals to which they could direct the growth of their universities, colleges and research institutes. They needed to choose their ambitions carefully.

Inevitably, with around 1,000 universities in Europe claiming to be research institutions, there would not be enough funding available to ensure that all were really world-class research universities.

"What's happening is that there is a process of differentiation, where some universities are becoming highly competitive internationally," Huber said. "Then there is another group of universities with departments containing high-quality research; and then there are teaching universities."

All these important institutions needed to have clear goals. The teaching universities, in particular, needed clear orientation and to link their curricula to research being carried out elsewhere, he said.

"What's the particular role of a teaching university? We need a dialogue in Europe to answer these questions."

Huber was born 1960 in Wuppertal, in the industrial Ruhr valley region. He is professor of public finance at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and has been president of the university since 2002.

His university, which was founded in 1472, was selected in 2006 as a "university of excellence" within an excellence initiative competition staged by the German government to promote top-level university research. Huber is also a member of the scientific council within the German Federal Ministry of Finance and of the scientific technical council for the state government of Bavaria.