A pressing need to focus on research-driven innovation

When, back in 2002, Aarhus University invested in establishing the interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre and a new nanoscience study programme, few people realised the potential outcome.

Now, 10 years later, iNANO is recognised as a world leading research centre, and nano research as the driving force for developing new technologies within materials, energy, the environment, communication, electronics and health, just to name a few.

The impact on Denmark's innovation system cannot be underestimated.

This example shows that a focus on a new combination of research activities can lead to excellent research – research that dares to question existing perceptions and makes the unthinkable possible.

Excellent research is, and should be, one of the cornerstones of the European Union's new Horizon 2020 programme, which is one of the world's largest research initiatives with a total proposed budget of €80 billion (US$98 billion).

At the end of April, Aarhus University hosted one of the Danish EU presidency's conferences. Leading researchers, politicians and representatives from public and private foundations from across Europe discussed how increased investments in excellent research can make a positive contribution to Europe’s competitiveness and growth.

The conclusions can be found in the Aarhus Declaration adopted by the conference.

Innovation is based on quality research

Grand societal challenges are highly complex and include demographics, migration, public health, scarcity of resources, water, food and energy, financial instability, and indeed climate change. At the same time Europe is facing increased competition from other regions – North America, East Asia and the fast-growing economies in the BRIC countries.

In all global regions, innovation systems are clustered in sub-regions in which high quality universities, research institutes, businesses and infrastructure hubs are drivers of innovation.

This is also the case for European research. Smaller countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden, German states such as Baden-Württemberg, or city regions such as Barcelona, Rotterdam and Munich, not to mention the Oxbridge region of Great Britain, have some of the world’s highest rates of internationally cited research per invested euro.

However, Europe’s research seems not to lead to the same degree of innovation as in competing regions.

There may be several reasons for this, but the discussions during the conference in Aarhus indicate that there is a perception that Europe offers too little freedom and too many restrictions for the best and most competitive researchers.

Maybe there is a tendency to be too short sighted, or too strategic, and to spread resources too thinly around well-established research, or even to use political rather than research quality criteria when selecting research grant winners.

The Aarhus Declaration therefore recommends an investment strategy, which seeks to identify and nurture excellent research in its own right, based on its own criteria.

It is of pivotal importance that Europe and its institutions, universities and foundations become better at spotting talent and at providing freedom for the most talented individuals to lead research efforts into the unknown. This calls for time, space and confidence, but also the courage to redirect funding from unproductive research areas.

More flexible funding

Both Danish and European research foundations have been leading the way in creating a more open and flexible funding model.

Several of these organisations attended the conference, including the Lundbeck Foundation, the Carlsberg Foundation, the Danish National Research Foundation, the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Volkswagen Foundation and the European Research Council.

The time is now ripe for other research funds to follow in their footsteps.

And there is no reason why it shouldn’t happen. The European Research Council (ERC) is already highly successful, and supports basic research within all disciplines. The researcher has complete freedom within the funding framework.

Despite the fact that the ERC isa young foundation, its grants have had far-reaching impact in a number of important areas. ERC-financed researchers are strongly represented among the winners of prestigious research prizes, and in 2011 results were published every week from at least one ERC-financed research project in either Nature or Science.

Moreover, several ERC projects have led to fundamental discoveries.

For example, the Russian professor of physics and astronomy Konstantin Novoselov, at the University of Manchester, who was one of the first winners of an ERC grant in 2007, three years later won the Nobel prize in physics for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene.

The Horizon 2020 agreement reached between EU countries on 25 May sends a clear signal that the road to growth requires increased investment in knowledge and innovation. Europe needs to work hard to capitalise on the comprehensive European research system already in place.

For this reason Europe must invest in excellence.

* Lauritz B Holm-Nielsen is rector at Aarhus University, president of Euroscience and vice-president of the European Universities Association, EUA. Read the Aarhus Declaration here.