View from our antipodes

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Neon Theme Visualization of Circuit Board CPU Processor

Two recent news items have highlighted an increasing discussion in Europe on the need for more early stage and discovery research to meet two major challenges: driving innovation for economic growth, and responding to emerging global issues such as food security and energy demand.

The first item that caught my eye was the Aarhus Declaration (PDF).

This was the outcome of a conference at Denmark’s Aarhus University dedicated to promoting excellence in research, innovation and education at both the European and national levels. It is instructive to consider the main points of the Declaration, which urge Europe to:

  • strengthen its science base
  • use “simple, broad and unbureaucratic, non-thematic instruments” to administer contestable funding systems
  • nurture talent in order to produce and attract top researchers
  • improve access to infrastructure and funding, and
  • facilitate sharing of research results, particularly across disciplines.

The Declaration argues that part of the approach to address the “daunting societal challenges” that the world now faces should be to identify outstanding researchers, provide them with the lightly regulated funding and excellent infrastructure necessary to establish a creative research environment, and trust them to produce excellent and groundbreaking research. If followed through, this would be a shift in thinking from approaches that have dominated in some jurisdictions.

The second item, on the same theme, was an editorial (PDF behind paywall) in the 27th April issue of Science magazine by Dr Peter Gruss, president of the Max Planck Society, Germany’s largest basic science-focused research organisation.

Dr Gruss asks, “are nations investing too little in basic research” to meet emerging global challenges? He makes similar points about time frames and sources of funding, and concludes that countries that are reducing their investment in this kind of science in response to the global debt crisis are risking their future prosperity.

There is no doubt about the need for research targeted to produce near-term economic impact, but these two papers suggest a growing realisation that it is not an ‘either-or’ strategy. Rather, it is important to do both even though the timescales of pay-off may differ.

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