Science strategies must balance impact and curiosity

Many developing countries have appointed science ministers and drawn up science policies. But using funding for research that meets immediate and pressing needs is a difficult task, since it is often a bottom-up approach that produces science excellence, according to Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council.

Some global scientific leaders told the first Global Gathering for African science – hosted by the Next Einstein Forum or NEF and held in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 8-10 March – that there were best science strategy practices that could help deliver effective funding for research in developing countries.

The NEF is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences or AIMS in partnership with Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung, and is a platform that brings together leading thinkers to advance science in Africa and solve global challenges.

“Any research strategy has to be comprehensive,” said Bourguignon. He gave as an example the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, which has €80 billion (US$90 billion) available over seven years.

Horizon 2020

Horizon 2020 has three pillars. The first, which consumes a third of the total funding, is support for excellent science. It includes grants for researchers via the European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship that allow for the mobility of researchers in and out of Europe.

The second pillar, Bourguignon said, focuses on industry and among other things provides research grants for small and medium-sized enterprises targeting industrial areas such as aeronautics, information and communication technologies, energy and health. There is also indirect financing for large industrial companies.

The last pillar provides support for research that tackles societal challenges in areas including climate change, food security, clean energy, integrated transport and cyber security.

From the beginning, Horizon 2020 has had various components and processes attached to it, said Bourguignon: “Excellence in science is based on a bottom-up approach. Researchers come up with their projects and the panels that select them look at scientific quality.”

Work under some of the pillars is more top-down, with priorities established and researchers expected to address set issues. But a number of countries have completely abandoned the crucial bottom-up approach.

“It is extremely important for a global research strategy that enough space is left for the bottom-up approach, for initiation by researchers, for the reason that it’s absolutely critical that researchers come up with cutting-edge, unexpected ideas which you don’t want to miss if you control them too much.”

Bourguignon said the European programme is about frontier research, and does not want to discriminate between basic, applied or technological research. Basic research receives 85% of the funding, applied research 15% and technological research 5%. This reflects the projects received and panel selections made.

German best practice

Peter Strohschneider, president of the German Research Foundation, also argued for strong and balanced national science policies that do not pit impact-oriented research against curiosity-driven research.

Both types of research should be seen as essential components of an integrated and innovative research system, said Strohschneider, who is also chair of German medieval studies at the University of Munich. “This at least is the rationale that we follow in Germany.”

Strohschneider said Germany fosters a culture of research innovation by having a segment of the research system that does not bother about impact at all.

In 2013, Germany’s overall research and development expenditure was €80 billion, which was 2.9% of gross domestic product. Industry funded 70% of research and development, and the federal government and 16 regional governments funded the remaining 30%.

Strohschneider said that of the 30% of publicly funded research, one-third goes to dedicated extra-university research institutes, another third goes to the basic funding of university research that researchers most desire, and the last third goes to groups that fund bottom-up research, such as the German Academic Exchange Service and Max Planck Institutes.

There is a well-balanced division of labour in the German research system between groups of institutes, and the criteria by which institutes decide on the research they fund. This balance explains the innovativeness of the research system as a whole, Strohschneider added.

“If you want innovative research systems, you have to make sure you balance impact-oriented research and curiosity-driven research.” This applies globally. It does not matter whether a country is developing or developed – at the end of the day, research still has to be done.

France Córdova, director of America’s National Science Foundation, said her organisation is deeply driven by transformative science. Most of its investments are in universities and colleges – institutions that “lead development of cutting edge technology”. Córdova said most of the foundation’s funding goes to 15,000 proposals a year that are aligned to national goals.

Finding a balance

Molapo Qhobela, chief executive officer of the National Research Foundation in South Africa, agreed that balancing impact-oriented research with curiosity-driven research is something developing countries should take into consideration.

However: “Strategies of this nature must never be out of context, and in our case must be informed by the National Development Plan, so that research influences and shapes the development of our country,” he said.

Qhobela called for uncompromising commitment to excellence. He said there is a need to invest in the entire pipeline of researchers, and that world leaders in fields of research must be valued. The era of Africa having one expert in a field was long gone: “It must be at scale.”

He said that in Africa, national science strategies should also focus on the transformation agenda. The vestiges of colonialism must not disempower previously disadvantaged people. “We need to transform for the benefit of our countries and ensure infrastructure and institutions fairly benefit all.”

Policy certainty and stability are also important. “There is nothing worse than a science strategy that lasts for three years and after that changes come and you start again.”

Mary Teuw Niane, Senegal’s minister of higher education, said that whatever research policies were adopted, it was vital to have indigenous funding so that when foreign support dried up there would still be financing for research.