European science policy and research risk

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A comment on the EU science policy and on the reasons of its crisis.  (Published on the Euroscience blog)

Basic research is intrinsically risky: looking at the history of science one may find many examples of unexpected discoveries as well as of many ideas that were assumed true at a certain point in time while later they were proven wrong. Among the first we find, in recent years, the discovery of high temperature superconductivity by Alex Muller and Georg Bednorz, of the Quantum Hall effect by Klaus von Klitzing, the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer, and, more recently, the discovery of the graphene layers by Andrei Geim and Konstatin Novoselov.

History of science teaches us that it is difficult to know in advance which exploratory path will be more fruitful. Similarly one cannot identify in advance who will make a breakthrough: many major scientific discoveries are made in mid-career by people with unexceptional careers until that point. For instance, by looking at the publications and citations scores of Geim and Novoselov before the graphene discovery of 2004, one could not have predicted the burst of popularity obtained after the discovery, as shown by the several thousands of citations per year they received after 2004, the prelude of the Nobel prize in 2010.

The handling of research risk is therefore a crucial aspect that both individual researcher and funding agencies must face. Research is funded through competitive grants and direct funding: the amount of the total research budget and the manner this is distributed among researchers defines a State research policy. A crucial question concerns whether it is more effective to give large grants to a few elite researchers, or small grants to many researchers. A quantitative study based on the data of the Research Council of Canada, shows a lack of correlation between grant size and citation impact suggesting therefore that larger grants do not lead to larger discoveries and that the most efficient funding strategies are those that target the diversity, rather than excellence.

Indeed, a grant strategy that funds a small percentage of the applicants, between 5% and 10% such as the one adopted by the European Research Council (ERC), has, in general, several disadvantages. First of all, the selection of the top 5% tends towards risk-averse decisions based on achieving consensus between reviewers. Indeed, innovative projects explore subjects away from the mainstream, being thus more controversial and likely to raise more discussions and criticisms among peers. Secondly, only researchers with very high bibliometric scores can hope to have their projects selected. This implies that researchers should already be very well established and their work recognized enough to pass the threshold. In short the second problem is to introduce a sort of Saint Matthew accumulated advantage effect where “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”: the real problem is to fund the excellence of the future, the one that today is among the large magna of professional scientists, rather than to reward today the excellence of the past/present.

As noticed by John P.A. Ioannidis, nowadays scientists are judged by the amount of money they bring to their institutions. Writing, reviewing and administering grants absorb most of their time and effort: a too high threshold in the research projects acceptance rate therefore results in huge waste of time and resources that the large fraction of non-successful applicants have spent in writing projects that are finally not funded. This time should also be computed in the total funding budget because universities and research institutions pay for this.

At the European level, another problem with a funding strategy that rewards a small fraction of applications is that it implies that only those countries with well-established research policy can really compete. Indeed, we are facing nowadays a breakdown of the research and university systems in southern European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy: France still experiences a more healthy situation, but the tendency is also that of downsizing science and higher education budgets, cutting funding for basic research and positions for young researchers.

In southern European countries the structural source of research funding, represented by national calls regularly opened during each year, has hardly received any support since the implementation of the cuts imposed by austerity measures. In practice the main fraction of national funds for university and research is spent on salaries and to maintain, whenever possible, infrastructures; this means that free funds to support curiosity driven research are rapidly disappearing. This situation pushes researchers from these countries to consider ERC grants as the unique possibility of getting funds. Researchers eventually getting grants, given the depressing national situation, are thus strongly encouraged to place their activity in northern Europe universities: for instance, the 80% of the Italian ERC grants are abroad, resulting in a net brain drain.

This has made the ERC grant system a mechanism for transferring science funds and talent from southern to northern Europe. This situation thus contributes to the growing unbalanced scientific development of the EU member states, increasing, instead of diminishing, the growing economic and social division of Europe. On the other hand, those young researchers that are not able to get an ERC grant are now going to increase the members of the so-called “lost generation”, an increasing group of young people forced to abandon research activities and, eventually, to accept low quality employments. Can EU bear to have thousands of young scientists without hope to have decent jobs and various member states that have abandoned any aim of becoming technologically advanced? These are the main political questions EU policy makers should face now. There is therefore imbalance between northern and southern Europe regarding research and access to research funding. Moreover, as the potential benefits of young researchers become lost to society, there is also imbalance between the present and future generation in terms of the fruits of science and research.

There are therefore two main areas of policy: how funds should be allocated to researchers and research projects within each country; and how research resources should be allocated within Europe. From the point of view of distribution of funds among researchers, the central question is how to avoid that science funding decisions reward past excellence and, instead, how to select future excellence. The selection and promotion of research project characterized by creative thinking and innovative ideas must pass through the understanding that science is a social process. Therefore the evaluation of scientists needs to give space to different degrees of quality: the pursuit of “excellence” is only the mirage reflection of an ideological and unrealistic dogma. To avoid the systematic bias in favour of mainstream research programmes one could think of lowering the success threshold – to include, say, 30% of the applications – and of relaxing the whole selection procedure, for instance, by introducing some randomness in it, as suggested by the British philosopher of science Donald Gillies.

The crucial political problem for Europe is to genuinely boost research policy and funding at both the national and EU level. The fact that fiscal consolidation is written into the constitutions of Italy, Spain and Greece, while the idea of spending 3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Research & Development (R&D) remains an empty aspiration, tells us a lot about the place of research in the continent’s political priorities. Instead, because the investment in R&D is positively correlated with the growth of the gross domestic product – “Over half of US economic growth has come from innovation with root in basic research funded by the federal government” – one should consider this investment as the cornerstone of any future economic policy.

If a European national science policy remains a duty for the (near) future, some immediate measures must be considered: a regional balance of funding distribution, the exclusion of R&D expenses from deficit calculation and perhaps imposing to EU member states a minimum quota for R&D. However the debate about the EU policy on research funding and its distribution, and thus about R&D and economic policies, should actively involve scientists of the different EU member states who, remembering the not-so-far-past, should raise their voice and do everything they can to prevent a repetition of recent past experiences.

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