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Public research

The European scientific landscape

   

What new directions are national research support policies taking? What are their aims? What do the member states expect from the institutions they fund? How do the researchers view the situation? And what is the role of international support? A study funded by the European Union is now shedding light on all these questions, by combining a structural analysis with a field survey.

     
   
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Six multidisciplinary teams of sociologists, political analysts and economists have taken a long hard look at public research systems in 12 European countries varying in size, growth rate, culture and level of scientific progress - the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Norway and Iceland. At the same time, a field survey was conducted among 392 human genetics laboratories (see box p.9). This ambitious project, European Comparison of Public Research Systems, was carried out over a two-year period with support from the European Union.(1) Research policies differ from one country to another, being rooted in a particular tradition and history which affect their development. However, over the past 30 years these differences have tended to erode due to a number of major - and common - trends, such as the restructuring of research institutions, a marked priority for new technologies, the emphasis on transfer to industry, and the institutionalisation of evaluation for programmes and institutions.

Research institutes are taking a new direction
In the past, public research seemed to have a more precisely defined mission. The key task of universities was to push back the frontiers of knowledge, transfer know-how, and train new generations of scientists. The specialist public institutes, on the other hand, concentrated on meeting the needs of government policy and supporting the industrial priorities set by governments.

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An example of a centre of excellence of worldwide renown: CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva.) View of one of the 6-metre diameter DELPHI detectors in the LEP electron-positron collider.

'These institutes were expected to be able to anticipate and resolve questions that could arise in the fields of health, food safety, energy, etc.,' explains Philippe Larédo, director of research at the Ecole des Mines in Paris, who managed the project's laboratory survey. 'They were subject to various - and sometimes contradictory - reforms. In the United Kingdom they had to become more "service-oriented", in France they were pushed in the direction of academic research. In every case, these institutes failed to fulfil the role they should have in preventing and controlling the growing number of crises - contaminated blood and BSE for example.' In some cases the decision-makers transferred tasks which had traditionally fallen to research institutes to universities, which, due to a lack of equipment or human resources, were not necessarily in a position to take them on.

'There is a need for new approaches which are better rooted in public concerns and suited to each situation,' continues Mr Larédo. 'France, for example, in addition to maintaining these institutes, has set up a specific mechanism - complete with supporting legislation - for the processing of nuclear waste, an AIDS research agency, a committee for research into BSE, and - more recently - a food safety agency. To me, the concept of a generic approach seems completely outdated.'

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Innovation and technology transfer. The European watchwords of the past 20 years.

Universities and innovation
Throughout Europe there is the same tendency to encourage closer links between public-sector research and private-sector expectations. 'This is not new. Do not forget that Louis Pasteur made major breakthroughs in biology at a time when he was seeking to solve problems posed by industry. It is useful for companies to help researchers to identify priorities and to support their projects. The situation is less healthy when public research is dependent on industrial contracts for access to research grants,' remarks Jacqueline Senker of Sussex University, the project's coordinator.

Innovation and technology transfer are the two key terms - the watchwords - which have reshaped Europe's research policy over the past 20 years. Ministerial portfolios reflect this objective, often combining science, technology and education. Implemented under weak economic conditions, without real command of all the information and under time pressure, this reorientation has often been based on ready-made solutions. 'There has often been a tendency to imitate what has succeeded elsewhere in a comparable situation. Government enthusiasm for technology transfer does not necessarily mean that these initiatives are going to be a success,' continues Dr Senker, who believes there is an 'urgent need to correct this excessive emphasis on promoting industrial innovation.'

Too close a relationship between universities and industry raises a number of fundamental issues. Apart from the adverse effects of short-term, applied research on quality, Dr Senker believes that 'This cooperation can prejudice the status of "impartial expert", which is what researchers in the field of scientific policy are expected to be. It is also sometimes very difficult for an SME or company in the traditional sector to find the necessary expertise. Some universities are no longer interested in meeting such unsophisticated needs.'

And where does this emphasis on economic return leave fundamental research? Unfortunately, it is all too often the poor relation in the member states. Neglecting long-term research in this way is not without its effects in terms of failing to advance knowledge, tending to discourage talented researchers from adopting a career with an uncertain outcome, and penalising applied research, which is impossible without its upstream counterpart.

Countering the 'single policy'
' 'Political perception of problems, orientations and objectives has become increasingly similar in every country,' notes the report. 'Institutions such as the OECD and the European Union have reinforced this trend. Their analyses of the various situations and the solutions needed have had the same influence on the national debate, in all countries,' explains Dr Senker. She believes officials everywhere have jumped on the bandwagon of evaluation, even if the effectiveness and impartiality of its use varies from one country to another.

This trend towards increasing uniformity is nevertheless meeting resistance from national cultures - cultures sometimes seen as obstacles to the 'new scientific policy' sought by policy-makers. For Dr Senker this 'multi-faceted' approach to research is essential: 'The diversity of national systems must continue. It stops us repeating our mistakes and permits new initiatives. It also benefits scientific research. The interaction between scientists from different countries in EU-backed projects, each making their specific contribution, has generated an extremely creative process which is accelerating the dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe. European funding should promote multidisciplinary research, which is often neglected by national programmes, although it is frequently the source of innovative scientific and technological developments.'

(1) Supported by the Fourth Framework Programme's Targeted Socio-Economic Research programme (TSER).

 

In the labs
In addition to the structural analysis of national public research policies, a field survey was conducted among 392 human genetics laboratories in seven countries: France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom. 'These laboratories are to research what companies are to the economy: basic production units. Just as there are SMEs and multinationals, innovators and imitators, pioneers and developers, so too there are different kinds of laboratory,' explains Philippe Larédo, who managed the survey.
Human genetics was chosen because it is representative of a new method of knowledge production, is particularly active in the field of life sciences, adopts a trans-disciplinary approach, and places the emphasis on applications while at the same time having direct links with fundamental research. 'This new method of knowledge production reflects the way in which the use of skills and knowledge is being spread increasingly widely throughout society and the economy. It also reflects a re-balancing of the roles, with research increasingly concentrating on problem-solving.'
The idea was for the laboratories to provide a 'compass card' of research, taking all their various activities into account: production of certified knowledge, involvement in training, contribution to gaining competitive advantages, anticipation and realisation of public objectives, participation in the public debate. Different activity profiles were defined on the basis of the way they combined these roles. Despite the very 'fundamental' nature of their research, more than half the laboratories have important links with hospitals and industry, which does not prevent two-thirds of them also playing a major academic role. 'Our hypothesis is that the more laboratories open up to other institutions the more strongly autonomous their strategies become, thanks to their involvement in several different programmes, and their relations with the socio-economic world - companies and hospitals - etc.' These strategic choices are made in situ, by each laboratory, and quite independently of criteria of nationality or parent institution. It is this which 'must raise many questions for the parent institutions and for incentive policy, whether regional, national or European.'

Contact
Philippe Larédo
Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation Ecole des Mines de Paris
Laredo@csi.ensmp.fr


The hunt for funds

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The public funds allocated to universities and research centres are traditionally channelled through one of two paths: the research council finances specific research projects on a competitive basis following an evaluation by scientists; block grants allocate institutes a global amount which they are then free to manage as they see fit. This latter method - with a guarantee of independence - is becoming more common. Jacqueline Senker believes that 'the two systems must continue to operate in parallel, although there should perhaps be stricter control over the way in which the money is spent in the case of the block grants. However, we must also remember that they do allow scientists to explore radically new fields which research-council evaluators might be inclined to refuse.'
Whatever form it takes, national research funding is inadequate in most countries. Additional sources available in certain countries include European funds (Ireland, Portugal, Spain), contracts with industry (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Ireland), and foundations set up by industry or non-profit-making associations (20% of the research resources of British universities). Some countries are also taking new initiatives, such as France which has just introduced an 'ecotax' with the revenue collected going to research on the environment and health.



Contact

Jacqueline Senker
SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research Unit
University of Sussex
Fax: +44 - 1273 685 865
j.m.senker@sussex.ac.uk
http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/index.html

     
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