How to define research impact, a speech by ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

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Tags: ERC | Excellence

This piece is composed of exerpts from Prof. Bourguignon's speech at the Coimbra Group of Universities Meeting Venice, Italy, December 2018 (Source: ERC)

"I am afraid that you have been exposed to what people call “a growing unease amongst policy-makers and the public with the lack of immediate societal or economic impact of publicly funded research”. A sign that this pressure is mounting can be seen from the fact that the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC), bringing together heads of research funding agencies from around the world, includes in its agenda a discussion on ways in which research funding organisations respond to increased expectations of societal and economic impact. [...] this debate is not a new one, and one can say very broadly that two schools of thought regarding this have arisen over the years.

Firstly, there are those who believe in a science led approach. That is, one should fund the best proposals put forward by scientists themselves selected by their peers as the surest way to generate good science, that will then lead to societal and economic impact. Secondly, there are those who believe in a relevance-led approach. That is one should fund projects in priority areas defined by society to ensure scientific results which are relevant to the needs of society.

[...] I have no doubt all of us, who have been given the responsibility of spending (large) amounts of public money, feel a strong obligation to spend it well. Researchers tend to be very highly motivated individuals, and go into science to make a difference. Let's face it: the overwhelming majority of us do not go into science to become rich! The question therefore is not one of motivation. In reality, the only question is how to achieve the best results.

[...]  According to the OECD’s latest innovation strategy document from 2015, “public investment in scientific research is widely recognised as an essential feature of effective national innovation systems. Public research plays a key role in innovation systems by providing new knowledge and pushing the knowledge frontier. Universities and public research institutions often undertake longer-term, higher-risk research and complement the activities of the private sector. Although the volume of public R&D is less than 30% of the total OECD R&D, universities and public research institutions perform more than three-quarters of total basic research.” So why then do we in the basic research community feel that we are under constant pressure to justify our activities and our budgets? I believe that there are two related reasons.

The first one is that, even if the importance of basic research for technological progress is accepted, the way science relates to it and to economic growth is inherently complex and still poorly understood. Too simplistic models tend to prevail in the minds of many: “you put enough money on a problem and it gets solved”.

[...] (the) second reason is that we scientists need to do a better job of explaining how science works. Sometimes we too easily say, “leave it to us, just give us more money and great things will happen”. If we behave like this, then we ourselves are contributing to the impression that science is easy and predictable, when we all know it is hard work and we often fail! We need to be clear that basic research is essentially trying to understand how things work. This can in some circumstances lead to identify new phenomena, i.e. phenomena nobody has ever come across, or develop new concepts thanks to which we can make sense of these otherwise unexplainable features. We also need to be honest that not every project or research programme will deliver a “breakthrough” in our knowledge. There is indeed no linear process by which scientists make discoveries, then harnessed through a complex chain of actions.

We therefore need to contest the idea that asking researchers to address impact ex ante as only possible basis for having their research funded can do no harm. Forcing researchers towards expected, intended and immediate impact risks missing out on truly transformational discoveries. It can also lead to gaps in scientific knowledge in areas, which are not of societal interest at one point in time, but might be so later, and even become of paramount importance. In recent years health care has provided ample evidence of the need to anticipate society’s needs. Moreover, requiring scientists to set out what the impact of their project will be beforehand may decrease trust in science if these promises are not delivered. Further, the channels through which basic research feeds into the economy are many and diverse. It is not just about the occasional breakthroughs. Fundamentally, basic research increases the stock of useful knowledge, both codified (e.g. in terms of publications) and tacit (skills, knowhow and experience). It plays a decisive role in training skilled graduates and researchers in solving complex problems, produces new scientific instruments and methodologies, creates international peer networks through which the latest knowledge circulates efficiently, and can even raise new questions about societal values and choices. A strong science base allows countries to be at the forefront of knowledge creation because, without this knowledge, individuals, firms or countries lack the capacity to identify and absorb potentially exploitable knowledge created elsewhere.

While I do not believe that limiting research funding to an elite group of researchers is enough to guarantee that any particular scientific project will have a strong “impact”, it is clear to me that our fundamental duty is to try and educate policy makers about the very process by which science feeds innovation. We must explain to them why it is legitimate to refuse to get into the game of trying to demonstrate the unknowable a priori, and to limit the indispensable breadth needed to consider science from many angles.

In a nutshell, the best bets are made when scientists are pushed to their boundaries when submitting research proposals, and the most competent evaluators are confronted with these challenging projects. You may have to press them to take on risk, as our community is actually spontaneously conservative and needs to be put outside of its comfort zone to accept some bets. This is precisely what the European Research Council is about, and I hope it plays its part in this process of educating policy-makers.

Finally, and this is not a minor issue, we must not forget that the most essential constituents of the research system are the researchers themselves, the human beings who make all this exist and function. In consequence it is of the greatest importance that the system provides them with a decent career path as nobody would enter a demanding working environment without being given some assurance that there is a chance to advance and be rewarded. It is there that you, in charge of important European universities, have a central role to play as you are the main providers of employment for them and the key channel to bring talented young people into the profession. Of course to do that you need to be given the means to create the right conditions.

If these basic conditions are not met, we should not be surprised that the best researchers [...] carry out their dreams elsewhere or leave research altogether. Any country, region or institution that wants to improve its capacity to deliver the best research needs to get these conditions right, and Europe would benefit greatly by providing the right platforms to share best practices. In particular, together we need to plot out a sustainable career path for talented young researchers across Europe. Getting this right is far more important than any particular rules we might decide to apply to our calls for proposals. This is why we need to prepare ourselves in the right way to the fight to secure future resources for activities we all cherish…"