Europe must support R&D to thrive
25 November 2011
By Dean Carroll
Political processes and funding for science have yet to adapt to globalisation and the challenges presented by the all-pervading eurozone crisis - delegates at the SciTechEurope conference, in Brussels, have been told. At the meeting of experts, organised by Public Service Events, concern was expressed at the lack of political will and financial commitment coming from the European Union and its member states - in relation to retaining the continent's position as a world leader in research and development.
Speaking to PublicServiceEurope.com, the president of the network of scientist and organisations known as Euroscience Enric Banda backed the European Commission's Horizon 2020 proposal – which would see €80bn of extra scientific investment over seven years, if ratified in 2013. But Banda voiced caution over whether member states would advocate the plan "at a time of political and economic crisis". Earlier, he told the conference that science had thrived in Europe in recent decades - but warned that the continent was around 750,000 researchers short of where it needed to be to have continued global success. Currently, there are approximately 1.3 million researchers working within the EU's boundaries. Pointing to the worrying trend for falling investment in R&D and the spike in academic posts being lost due to shrinking budgets, Banda indicated that the EU and its member states needed to step up to the plate before it was too late. "As a result of the economic crisis, a number of countries have reduced their science budgets," he explained. "In the past, we have managed to attract foreign talent to come to Europe, but the atmosphere is changing now."
Since 1981, Europe as a whole has dramatically increased the number of scientific papers published by universities and the amount of citations around the world has also climbed consistently – while in the United States, there has been a decline. The EU invested 0.74 per cent of gross domestic product in R&D in 2010; at the same time, America invested 0.99 per cent of GDP and Japan some 0.75 per cent. Horizon 2020 would boost the European figure to 3 per cent of GDP - if agreed by the European Council and the European Parliament. "We lag behind the US and Japan, with the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and Singapore rapidly catching up, " said Banda. "Horizon 2020 is going to be negotiated when member states are showing little appetite for 'more Europe' and that is the concern." Banda also urged policy-makers to involve scientists to a much greater degree when it came to creating new research initiatives and allocating funding. "Scientific collaboration works best from the bottom-up," he said. "The European scientific community is fragmented and decisions are being taken by people in offices who know nothing about R&D; it is not them that will find the cure to Alzheimers. Scientists must be much more influential in these processes than they are allowed to be at the moment."
Backing him, Professor Maria Leptin of the Initiative for Science in Europe called for a long-term perspective recognising the value of basic research as well as more business-focused applied research. "The innovation process is more complex than just a chain from idea to market." She said. "That is not how great ideas happen, they often depend on serendipity and basic research scientists working just out of curiosity before their work is later applied." Leptin warned of the dangers of allowing science funding to be dominated by private sector-friendly policies and national interests. She urged member states in the EU to acquiesce to central funding pots for R&D, with academics involved in the decisions on which projects to finance at the grassroots level. "European countries are too small to compete on their own on the international stage," said Leptin. "We need to cooperate and get away from the national focus and regional strategies. The best science comes from finding the right partners and then the funding, not the other way around."
In contrast, other speakers at the conference took a counter view – insisting that European universities had to become more business-friendly in order to imitate powers like the US, where the crossover between the private and public sectors was often spurred on by applied research and spin-off companies. Deputy director of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's directorate for science Yuko Harayama said: "Europe is strong, but it needs to think hard about the future. It's nice to have a lot of PhDs, but you have to think about how you can use that human capital in society. We have to share innovation and experience. And the growing power is in China, where the government continues to invest a lot of money in science."
Also putting the case for greater cross-fertilisation of ideas between the business world and academia, Dr Liz Towns-Andrews – director of research and enterprise at Huddersfield University, in the United Kingdom – highlighted the need for "paths to market" for products and knowledge that had been developed in the higher education sector. Andrews, who was involved in a €12m EU-funded innovation centre being built at her university in Huddersfield, said academic ivory towers needed to be consigned to history. She added: "Organisation cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research; they have to source ideas from other academic institutions and companies. There is certain arrogance with academia, but we need to collaborate. The interface needs to allow a conversation on both sides because some companies are doing world-leading research. Cross-sector research is the future, with innovation centres that bring all of the ideas together in a one-stop shop and feedback loops including banks, industry and venture capitalists – all of the pieces of the jigsaw. It's a different model, but all of us have to learn from one another's lessons."
Article first appeared on our sister site Publicserviceeurope.com