Research in Times of Financial Crisis

Helga Nowotny talks to Carsten Könneker, chief editor of Spektrum der Wissenschaft

17. 10. 2012 | What effect has the European debt crisis on science? Carsten Könneker, chief editor of Spektrum der Wissenschaft, discussed this topic with Prof. Helga Nowotny, president of the prestigious European Research Council ERC. Currently, the doctor of jurisprudence with a PhD in sociology has to fight to fill research coffers - with the European Commission, with the European Parliament, and with member states shaken by the debt crisis.
Carsten Könneker: Professor Nowotny, as the president of the European Research Council, you are one of the most influential female scientists in Europe. What has been your experience of the effects of the current debt crisis on science?

Helga Nowotny during the interview
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Helga Nowotny during the interview
Prof. Nowotny: The European Research Council's budget is guaranteed for a period of seven years, so it is actually very privileged. This is why the debt crisis has not yet had a major effect on it. But what might happen after 2014 is anyone's guess. The next two years will be very crucial. In 2014, the European Parliament, the member states and the European Commission will discuss and decide on the budget for the next seven years. And this is where I really do see trouble on the horizon. For instance, the EU states that are net contributors want to pay considerably less. It's not that they have anything against a particular part of the programme. It's just that there is less to add to the coffers.

Is this just about money then?

No, but there is a concentration effect in the ERC grants: Fifty percent of the grants are awarded to fifty universities and research institutes; the other fifty percent are parcelled out to over 430 institutions. However, the new member states are clearly underrepresented. Understandably, this leads to a certain amount of political dissatisfaction among these states. The last time I had the opportunity to address the Council of the European Union, I tried to make one thing clear to the research ministers present: If we deviate one iota from "excellence" as the defining criterion for the funding of European science, excellence will soon be a thing of the past.

Did they get the message?

Basically, they agreed. But there have been repeated attempts to implement research policies via the ERC in order to improve the situation in the new member states. The ERC is simply the wrong instrument for that, though. Capacity must be developed first, using the Structural Funds that have been provided for that purpose. In any case, Europe needs the member states to cooperate, relies on them to act in concert. We need a common public profile in an increasingly globalised world.

Is this more than just a phrase?

Of course! And we need to hurry. I was at the Nobel laureate meeting in Laudau a few weeks ago; the president of Singapore spent two whole days there. His country, like many Asian countries, is making an enormous effort to attract young, talented Europeans. Taiwan is also catching up, just like Korea. Here in Europe, we should take to heart what the director of the American National Science Foundation, Subra Suresh, said: "Good science anywhere is good for science everywhere." Thinking beyond national borders is vital for Europe. This is precisely what the ERC stands for.

Germany is very proud that its research funding has increased in recent years, even during the financial crisis. Are we really so unique compared to the rest of Europe?

Fortunately, France is following Germany's example and has begun to transfer the idea of an "Excellence Initiative" to the situation in France. This mainly entails improved conditions for the universities. In Great Britain, certain basic research areas have special protection in the budget, and the life sciences have even been beefed up. Much is being done there, but more selectively. The Scandinavian countries are generally well positioned and view investments in research and development as key elements. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the financial plight of Spain, Italy and Greece, and the effects on science and research. This leads to our current European dilemma.

Where do you see the main shortcomings in education and research in Europe?

There are several things I could mention. I believe that it is especially pressing for us to improve the career opportunities for young researchers. It would be nice to find a European solution to this problem. The ERC, with its transferable funding, provides an excellent model: A young researcher holding an ERC grant can change locations within Europe if he or she receives a better offer. Universities need to accomodate the wishes of their top scientists and academics more than ever.

Do you support the idea of Annette Schavan, the German research minister, to relocate skilled workers and young academics from Spain to Germany?

Yes. Mobility is part and parcel of a researcher's life. These young people definitely know what they are doing. And it doesn't mean that they are leaving forever. If conditions in their home countries improve, many of them will certainly return. They will be richer for the experiences abroad, and will also contribute to improved networks across Europe.

During times of large-scale changes, does science have a special task in society? If yes, what could it be during the current crisis?

Science has one major advantage, one that society desperately needs today: a long-term outlook. We generally cannot foretell when new findings will find widespread use, particularly in the area of basic research. But we know that it will happen. This confidence in the long-term outlook is extremely valuable. This must be communicated, especially when conditions in societies have become fragile and transitory. This confidence can signal, there is something that is valuable in and of it itself: an increase in knowledge. This represents a return of sorts to the roots of European Enlightenment, and reminds us of the unbelievable dynamics that ideas can generate. One major belief here would be the confidence in our ability to shape our future.

In your opinion, what is the role of the individual researcher in society?

I can only answer that from the perspective of our young researchers. Almost every week, a conference is held somewhere, and there you will find young ERC grant recipients speaking. For me, it is amazingly satisfying to see these young people share their passion for their research. Their excitement inspires their audiences, and excellence is passed on in this way.

But we also had to learn a few things in recent years: Not everyone can communicate, nor can just anyone meet the scientific obligation to provide information to the public. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who are able to do this, both willingly and well. These researchers should be encouraged, and the incentive system in the sciences should finally acknowledge this type of achievement.

What is the role of new social media?

This aspect is becoming increasingly important. A completely new level of communication has developed here, especially for the younger generation. The communication of the future is already here. Social media have caused societies to open up in a completely new way, with tremendous dynamics. For example, there was a recent case in the "community" where an alternative folding of a certain protein was being sought. A group of amateurs that had taken part actually ended up finding a solution that would have taken much more time in a conventional way.

Your term of office will be over next year. What do you see as your biggest challenges between now and then?

I am concerned about the imbalance in Europe. We have to make a serious effort to retain talented young researchers. Early next year, we are organising a conference where each of our grant recipients, particularly those in Eastern Europe, was asked to bring one young researcher from their home institution. It is our goal to connect with these young researchers and to signal to them that they have what it takes to apply successfully for an ERC grant themselves. Naturally, we hope that grant recipients will also take on a mentor role within their own region. An additional task is to increase the global recognisability of the ERC, with the aim of promoting the internationalisation of Europe as a science location.

Another issue that is very important to you is the advancement of women. So how can it be that only 9.4 percent of the Advanced Grants for established researchers went to women, an even lower percentage than in the past?

Simply put, those numbers are tied to the percentage of female full professors in Europe. Given the requirements applicants must meet for this ERC application to be successful, we cannot expect that the percentage of women applying will be higher than the percentage of female professors. But things look much brighter when we look at the "starting grantees". Nevertheless, we are aware of the underlying problems for women. How can you combine an academic career and its inherent time pressure with starting a family? That is the key issue that worries young female researchers. When they come to me and ask if they should still pursue a career in science, I can only give them one piece of advice: "Pick your partner very carefully!"

If women received 50 percent of all funding and held 50 percent of all professorships, do you think science would function differently, or "feel" different?

To solve pressing problems, we need a variety of approaches. If there were more women involved, the approaches and methods would diversify quite naturally. In turn, this would enrich our thinking. These differences exist, and science depends on them for creative new approaches that allow us to achieve scientific progress.

Interview: Carsten Könneker, with Kirsten Baumbusch
Translation: Deanna Stewart   (© Spektrum der Wissenschaft)

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