Excellence and Cohesion in European Science

I was invited to talk about the topic of excellence and cohesion in European Science  at the EuroScience Open Forum in Turin last weekend. (This is the meeting that will come to Dublin in 2012 for the City Of Science events). Both of the words -“excellence” and “cohesion” – carry heavy baggage. “Excellence” has become the only level of research that anybody plans to support…but not all research that is supported is excellent. Often, it is the best available proposal. And “excellent” can mean great knowledge-generating science or great applied technology. But in a standard contest, the academic would usually win (better publications, etc.). So, real excellence needs well-attuned reviewers, such that the flavour of excellence that is needed comes from the selection process. Still, “Excellence” is pure “motherhood and apple pie”. In the EU context, it is enshrined in the European Research Council (ERC) programmes that many of us agued for and are proud of how brilliantly they are fulfilling their goal. But ultimately, “Excellence” leads to exclusion – and that is the opposite of cohesion.

Cohesion, in the EU context, means that all member states are able to work together at more or less comparable levels of competence and, to do so, there must not be major disparities in their capabilities. That is why billions of Euros were transferred to Ireland after we joined the EU and why this process is now being continued for the new member states. And everybody says that they are in favour of cohesion…but I would say that it is not quite as accepted as a core principle as the use of the words sometimes imply.

A starting point on preparing for the talk in Turin was an uncomfortable feeling of hypocrisy; it would be easy to say that both E and C are needed; that there are no incompatibilities, and that genius is found everywhere and therefore nothing needs to be done.

But there is a problem; 96% of all ERC awards go to the “old” EU, with 15. 4% only to the new 12. And within the old 15, some countries do very poorly (Ireland is not starring) and within successful countries, some institutes are doing brilliantly and others are not visible. With time this disparity will increase as the “best” institutes will attract the “best” mobile researchers as the ERC spends billions of the EU research budget and as it is looking for a doubling of its budget, it seems to me that these hard facts cannot be ignored.

The underlying problems that go towards explaining this sharp gradient in national performances include:

– very variable levels of funding (from 0.4% to 3.7% of GDP) for research;

– a short time in which any real funding for research was available in some countries (Ireland can be included  here);

– consequential poor research infrastructure;

– an unattractive location for the brightest researchers (local and from other countries) to develop their careers;

– procedures that were set up to suit other (communist) regimes;

– lack of experience at the whole business of grant application (as opposed to money through patronage);

-exclusion from networks of researchers that develop over the years if you have interesting data to share.

For simplicity – but without bias – I will refer to those countries that are not adequately competitive as the “weaker” member states…and they extend further than new member countries.

So do we just analyse or do we act? I think we have to act, because Europe itself has a problem; 80% of researchers, 75% of investment and 69% of patents come from outside Europe. We are becoming marginalised. We have to use all our assets, engage in research at the frontier (where excellence shines) and spend the needed amount of money on research, as it  will obligatorily define our economic future.  We have to become global players and for that we need both excellent quality and a large number of world leading researchers. A restricted number of iconic locations for research is not going to bring the impact that is needed for Europe. So I believe that we need to act to achieve cohesion. Focussing on developing the European Research Area such that all the EU’s assets (and hence the need for Cohesion) are used, we should:

–         Ensure that 30% of Structural Funds (that are designed to compensate for weaknesses) should go to R&D projects and its infrastructure;(in addition to other measures needed nationally such as training, structural reform etc.)

–         The matching funds for Structural Funds investment relevant to R&D should be reduced compared to that for other projects;

–         The “return on investment” assessments for Structural Fund use should include an appreciation of the intangible assets associated with Research (otherwise roads and bridges will win every time);

–         The EU should deliver major infrastructure projects, (such as those that are on the ESFRI list) to the “weaker” countries or at least ensure that these countries are full partners in major infrastructure developments

–         The strong countries should open up their research funding schemes to scientists in the weaker countries;

–         A special competition, judged on the basis of excellence and restricted to scientists from the weaker countries, should be established to mirror and complement those currently at the ERC (ideally, it should be a new strand of the ERC; just as it recognised the need to have a special competition for early-stage researchers to ensure that their potential would not be crushed by the competition from the long-established groups, the same applies to scientists working at present in poor research environments);

–         Special grants/incentives should be in place to encourage researchers to set up their labs in the weaker countries (when I was at EMBO, we started a programme of this type and it is very effective).

–         Those that get ERC grants should get a bonus grant to improve their research environment with extra equipment and other infrastructures;

–         Countries should use procurement methods to develop research that matches their needs;

–         Linkages should be promoted and supported between the universities in the “strong” and the “weak” countries;

That is a 10-point plan…and more could be added. Some on the list might be impractical, and some might have been tried and have failed. But it would be good to have a plan with a real engagement to improve things. Otherwise, we will be talking about the same topic with the same underlying problems forever – or until Europe loses cohesion at all levels because of inequities in the system over all. 

My thoughts here and above are greatly influenced and informed by the documents of the ERAB (European Research area Board) [http://ec.europa.eu/research/erab/index_en.html

 ERAB has addressed this question in their initial document “Preparing Europe for a new Renaissance” and had followed it up in the ERAB Conference in Seville in May 2010

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