Back to the basics

An unofficial theme has become evident at ESOF over the past number of days. It was ignited by Jules Hoffmann during the first keynote speech which emphasised the importance of “work based purely on curiosity”. Since then, basic fundamental research has been highlighted repeatedly. This resounding message was acknowledged by the President of the Royal Irish Academy, Prof. Luke Drury. Yesterday he tweeted “Great to hear the strong support for the need to support fundamental and basic research in so many presentations at ‪#ESOF2012”. So what is causing the chatter about the fundamental research and what was being done at an Irish and EU level?

This type of research is coined ‘frontier research’ by the European Research Council (ERC). In a press conference yesterday, ERC President Prof. Helga Nowotny, stated that “frontier research needs to be and has to remain part of the overall funding at EU level”. She mentioned the greater freedom that graduate students have in the United States and gave this as the reason that so many young Europeans do not return from studying there. “Scientific independence is really the key for a young person as you can work on your own ideas”.

The ERC has a number of funding schemes to encourage frontier science across Europe. With little administration and no bureaucracy these schemes aim to push researchers to their limits. To receive them the scientist must have a brilliant track record and groundbreaking idea. An Irish ERC Advanced Grant holder, Prof. Luke O’Neill of Trinity College Dublin, was on hand to share his experience of these schemes. “It’s a dream come true for a scientist to get one of these grants as they leave you alone. It’s really stimulating European scientists to do really adventurous research. Our only limitation is our own ability, there’s no bureaucracy, there’s limited admin”.

At ESOF: Helga Nowotny, President ERC / Image: Maxwell’s Dublin

So a lack of deliverables, milestones and results in advance is stimulating pioneering science but is this feasible at a national level? Science Foundation Ireland has recently committed to fund researchers that are highly recommended by the ERC but are not successful in receiving funding. This hopes to encourage more applicants for these prestigious funding opportunities. Welcoming this initiative, O’Neill went further to hope that ERC has a transformative effect on national agencies such as SFI; “It would be great if national agencies were doing a similar programme”.

Funding at a European level sounds great in theory but in practice it is a highly competitive game. Irish researchers have been awarded a total of 27 starting and advanced grants out of a potential 2,566 since the ERC began in 2007. With so much competition in Europe, local funding is essential to get researchers to a point where they can apply for European funding. Both O’Neill and Nowotny aired their concerns about falling funding levels in Ireland. Risks include losing our outstanding Principle Investigators who could apply for advanced grants or our young researchers not getting sufficient funding to compete at an EU level. Spain is in a similar position to Ireland, in that it had built up the amount per capita it spent on funding and it is now dropping off. Troublingly, Nowotny compared Ireland and Spain to countries trying to improve their standing; “It’s probably worse if you had already at a level and you drop than wanting to go up”.

The switch from funding basic science to concentrating solely on applied industry-linked results-based research was the underlying worry in the discussions this week. Short-term gains and government agendas need to be re-focused or frontier science is at risk. Experimentation for the sake of curiosity is at the core of scientific discovery that propels society forward. Director of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, summarised this perfectly during his keynote address today; “The beauty of basic research is that it has a clear target of knowledge gain”. Surely our national funding agencies should prick up an ear and listen to the underlying message at Europe’s biggest science conference: go back to the basics!