It is critical to find the right balance between competition and collaboration, and between the goals of the individual researchers and their research institutePresident of the Research Council of the SNSF Dieter Imboden considers the conditions for top-class research identified by the recent Aarhus Declaration…
On 18th to 20th April 2012, the Danish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education hosted a conference at Aarhus University on excellence in research. At the end of the conference, a document entitled the Aarhus Declaration on Excellence 2012 (AD) was handed over to the Danish Minister Morten Østergaard by Helga Novotny, President of the European Research Council (ERC) and member of a small international advisory board that helped to prepare the declaration. Denmark, which at the time holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU, was asked to present the AD to its colleagues of the council as the view of scientists and science policymakers on how the European Research Area (ERA) should be further developed.
The AD consists of three main parts addressing the following issues:
• Why we should focus on excellence in European research and innovation policies;
• What excellence in research means; and
• How excellence in research should be sustained and nurtured.
Why should science focus on such a seemingly abstract issue at a time when money is scarce and many great challenges for mankind are awaiting solutions and action? If anything, there is no better time than this. As the German Reverend Martin Luther said, "even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree". In many ways, planting a tree is like investing in excellent science. Both need patience and a lot of care before their fruits can be harvested.
In times of distress and insecurity it is tempting to concentrate on harvesting the old trees that we already have. It is true that we can get away with not planting new trees for some time without any apparent negative consequences. Along similar lines, we nowadays frequently hear politicians asking scientists to concentrate on those issues that straightforwardly lead to innovation, new products and additional jobs, while abandoning other areas. This policy is neither wise nor does it have a long-term perspective, and is not the way to sustain and nurture excellence in research.
Research aims to produce new knowledge. Looking at the history of science, an interesting pattern evolves that, in a somewhat simplified way, results from two very different types of actors. I call them the explorers and the surveyors. The former sail, like Christopher Columbus, into unknown territory, often get lost, and sometimes find new land that later may even turn out to be something other than the land they were sailing for. Once the new continents are found, myriad surveyors will follow the explorers. They will build roads and settlements, turn every stone and thus make the new land productive.
Science has always moved forward in leaps marking the detection of new continents. The 20th Century, which began with the surprising view of some physicists that in physics no new basic phenomena would be found and the physics project would soon come to an end, has seen the most significant sequence of such unexpected leaps, from the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and semi-conduction (without which information technology would not exist) to the triumph of modern molecular biology like genetics. In all cases, the explorers and surveyors have worked efficiently and hand-in-hand. Today, there is no reason to assume that the number of scientific discoveries is limited as some of my physicist colleagues believed around a hundred years ago.
History has taught us a number of lessons about the factors necessary to conduct excellent research:
• Innovative research can only flourish if there is trust and freedom. To 'sail for new continents' is risky, carries the potential of failure and requires adequate freedom for the sailor, ie the researcher. A system that is steered by suspicion and asks for constant control will force the 'captain' to remain at range of sight of the well-known continents and will never discover something really new;
• Excellent research also demands creative and dynamic research environments. There is a fundamental difference between the optimal organisation of a private company producing goods and an institute engaged in basic research. Research that is dictated by top-down orders destroys creativity. It is critical to find the right balance between competition and collaboration, and between the goals of the individual researchers and their research institute;
• Research needs a long-term perspective. As with Reverend Luther's apple tree, the fruits need time to ripen. Having to rely solely on short-term, competitive grants for research funding can be a major problem for researchers and research institutions such as universities. An optimal mix between base and competitive financing is part of the recipe for excellent research;
• In most fields, progress in research depends on both bright minds and state-of-the-art infrastructure. Intelligent planning of national and European infrastructure is needed if Europe wants to remain at the forefront of research, especially in some fields where progress is controlled by the technical development of analytical tools;
• Recognising and nurturing talents is the most distinguished task of every research policy. Europe is still wasting many of its gifted researchers. A salient example is the gender inequality in most disciplines of science, which is not only deplorable from an ethical point of view but also a sign of inefficient use of talents;
• Today's great challenges need research that moves beyond and across disciplines. This is not an easy task. No wonder, given that most of us scientists have the innate tendency to dig deeper and deeper in one particular field until losing sight of the greater picture.
It is no coincidence that the six factors listed above also appear in the third paragraph of the Aarhus Declaration dealing with the conditions for excellent research. I hope that the AD will be read and accepted by those who decide on how public and private money is used for research. Returning to the explorer/surveyor metaphor: of course it is true that the surveyor's product is much closer to market. But without the detection of new land by the explorers, the surveyors will eventually go out of business.This article first appeared on publicservice.co.uk: A declaration of excellence.