EUROPE: Basic and applied science crucial to success

Too few universities teach about turning science into specific products that can be sold on the markets, and too many lack entrepreneurship departments to instruct on how ideas can be turned into money, said Dr Bernd Huber, President of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich.

Speaking to an audience of some 300 researchers at a conference in Brussels on the future of Europe's science and technology, his comments were in the familiar context of concern about the gap between the European Union's research dynamic and those of the US, Japan and, in some respects, China.

"Many university leaders are worried about the divide between applied research and basic research," he said at the SciTechEurope conference on Tuesday, citing the recent UK report Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, Lord Browne's independent review of higher education and student finance in England.

"I feel a concentration on applied research is to take a rather short-term view. It usually concentrates on improving existing technologies at the expense of looking for new ones," said Huber.

But another speaker, Dr Jens Rostrup-Nielsen, founding member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC), said he thought discussion about applied science and basic science was obsessive in some quarters, describing it as "a dead end".

"The policy of trying to pick a winner is the wrong one. More specific instruments are needed in Europe - along the lines of America's example where research tends to be mission-orientated and there is a stronger interaction between research and industry.

"We must have the freedom to invest in unfashionable ideas," he concluded.

However, Huber stressed a different point: "I always argue in favour of basic research - it's a key factor - and in any case basic research has to be a fundamental element of university education in Europe. We must remember that any research has to include a 'blue-sky' aspect. It needs to be done whether the results can be applied or not. Maybe they cannot be used for now but could become relevant in 10 or 15 years' time."

A key factor was how tertiary education dealt with the 'great challenges' such as climate change, cancer and age-related problems. Research into such subjects, he reminded the audience, was multidisciplinary. Governments and the European Commission should take universities' roles in this context.

"We must also remember that research and innovation are by definition risky. Perhaps expectations of what they can achieve are sometimes too high. In formulating the idea we mustn't let that overwhelm the objectives of individual participants in a programme.

"In other words, the rhetoric about the great challenges must leave enough room for a researcher's individual work," Huber said.

Later during the conference the question was raised of whether it was essential to hold a PhD (doctor of philosophy degree) to be involved in research. Rostrup-Nielsen said such an insistence reflected "a conservative university attitude - that you're nothing if you don't have a doctorate. In the ERC we're facing this problem. We should remember that it's not just knowledge, but know-how which counts."

In global terms Europe's position was regarded with some gloom by delegates and speakers, in particular by Dr Peter Tindemans, convener of the science policy working group of Euroscience, a member of the Initiative for Science in Europe, and one of the world's leading science policy experts.

He warned that because of the financial crisis Europe faced a future with less investment in both technology and in risky investments: "The recovery of budgets, if at all, will take a long time."

Jobs in particular sectors would disappear, and real wages would decline. In Europe there was likely to be more competition within industries rather than between industries.

Because of growing rivalry with China, India and Brazil (which are now training many more skilled workers than the EU or US), Europeans had little choice but to keep investing in research and development and in human capital.

"We've got to make sure there's enough money for bottom-up research. The EU needs to develop more specialisations," he said.

But he admitted: "Scientists at universities are not good at lobbying," and this was a continuing weakness. However, some important countries, such as the UK, France and Germany, were not cutting their research funds - despite government austerity measures, he pointed out.