In research policy it is difficult to know which exploratory path will be more fruitful or which researchers will make a breakthrough.
Before 2004, for example, the publication and citation records of Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov gave no hint that they were about to discover graphene, resulting in thousands of citations a year and a Nobel prize. Many breakthroughs cannot be predicted and come from researchers who do not have an exceptional record.
Handling risk is an important task for funding agencies. They must decide whether it is more effective to give large grants to a few elite researchers or small grants to many researchers. The evidence, including a study based on data from the national research council of Canada, shows no correlation between grant size and citation impact, suggesting that larger grants do not lead to larger discoveries and that funders might therefore do better to target diversity rather than narrowly defined excellence.
However, the principal EU-level funder of basic research, the European Research Council, takes the opposite route, funding only 5 to 10 per cent of applicants. This creates several problems.
First, when there are so few winners, applications become risk averse and aim for consensus between reviewers. But innovative projects should explore subjects away from the mainstream and provoke discussion. It is unlikely that the projects that yielded graphene would have scored in the top 5 per cent in review.
Second, only researchers with very high bibliometric scores—well-established researchers—can hope to have their projects selected. This creates a Matthew effect: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Third, now that writing, reviewing and administering grants absorbs so much of researchers’ efforts, a punitive rejection rate results in a huge waste of resources.
Fourth, at the European level, a highly competitive funding strategy favours those (northern European) countries with well-established research policy. Yet in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy, where national sources of research funding have almost disappeared and most university and research budgets go on salaries and infrastructure, the ERC is the only funder to which researchers can turn for curiosity-driven work.
Given the situation in their countries, any southern European researcher who wins ERC funding has a strong incentive to move. Eighty per cent of Italian holders of ERC grants, for example, are working abroad. The ERC grant system has become a mechanism for transferring money and talent from southern to northern Europe, increasing scientific, economic and social divisions.
Young southern European researchers unable to get an ERC grant may end up part of a lost generation, forced into low-quality employment. EU policymakers must ask themselves whether such educated people should be in that position, and whether various member states should really be forced to abandon all hope of becoming technologically competitive.
The real question in science policy is how to fund the innovative ideas lurking among the large corpus of professional scientists. To do this, funders must understand that there are different kinds of scientific quality, and that the pursuit of one idea of ‘excellence’ results from an ideological and unrealistic dogma. The search for creative and innovative research projects must acknowledge that science is a social process.
One way for the ERC to reduce the bias towards mainstream, flagship research programmes and create space for bottom-up, curiosity-driven research would be to relax its selection procedure—raising its success rate to, say, 30 per cent, with average grants becoming smaller. It might even introduce an element of randomness, which the British philosopher of science Donald Gillies has argued would lead to better funding decisions.
Other, more immediate measures could boost research policy and funding at the national and EU levels, and help young scientists in southern European countries. These include finding a regional balance for funding distribution among member states and encouraging R&D spending by removing it from deficit calculation.
Scientists in EU member states must also get involved in the debate about EU policy on research funding and its distribution. They have every incentive to raise their voices and do everything they can to prevent history from repeating itself. The fact that fiscal consolidation is written into the constitutions of Italy, Spain and Greece, whereas the target of spending 3 per cent of GDP on R&D remains an empty aspiration, tells us a lot about the place of research in the continent’s political priorities.
Francesco Sylos Labini is a physicist at the Enrico Fermi Center in Rome and works at the institute for complex systems at the CNR, Italy’s national research council. He is a founder and editor of the science policy blog Roars.it
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