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Academic leaders fear for balance of curiosity-driven research

Image: hojusaram [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

“Minimal” remaining opportunities for blue-skies funding must be defended, European University Association conference hears

Academic leaders have expressed concern that too much R&D funding is being allocated in a politically directed mission or challenge-based mode, to the detriment of the investigator-led, curiosity-driven or blue-skies research that often provides solutions to societal challenges.

Speaking in the opening session of the European University Association annual conference on 22 April, EUA president Michael Murphy said: “We’ve got to take a good look at whether the balance is right between mission-driven research and investigator- or academic-initiated blue skies thinking. That balance may be going out of kilter.”

Murphy warned that allocation of ‘block grants’ to research institutions, which institutions have considerable leeway to use as they see fit, “in many countries is shrinking, and that has always been the source of funding for investigator-initiated research”.

These concerns were echoed the following day by Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the interim president and two-term former president of the European Research Council, which funds only curiosity-driven research. He said his role entails “a permanent battle to make sure that this bottom-up approach receives enough space”.

“The tendency from politicians is to say: here is a problem, please solve it. And providing you also with a path. This path is very often reasonable, but it could be that the solution is going to come from a completely different approach. This is the challenge,” Bourguignon said.

He added: “It’s very important that we defend the minimal possibilities left to the bottom-up and curiosity-driven approach.”

Societal role of universities

The concerns contrasted with a recorded address to the conference from Charles Michel, the president of the European Council of EU member state governments. Michel mentioned the importance of academic freedom but largely framed universities’ role as helping tackle the “countless challenges” Europe is facing, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and digitalisation.

“The two great opportunities of our time are the green and digital transitions. And I believe our universities can, and must, play a vigorous role in shaping this common future. These twin transformations will define the coming century. And you, our universities, must be a powerful engine in driving forward our efforts,” Michel said.

But Pam Fredman, president of the International Association of Universities, said the importance of working in research areas not necessarily aligned with current political priorities was illustrated by the example of Covid-19 vaccines.

“Vaccines would not have been on the table so quickly unless we had had curiosity-driven research for many years,” she said.

Nevertheless, Murphy referred to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which have shaped EU policy priorities, as one political framework through which universities “need to be more active out in our regional societies…engaging better in public discourse”.

Murphy suggested universities have lost ground to think tanks in providing knowledge, evidence and ideas for politicians, saying there is a need to think about “whether the think tanks on which governments rely have stolen our clothes”.

He said: “We’ve got to ask ourselves: can we restore that role, that influence in social discourse, in order to drive the culture of change?”