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A passion for European science

Marja Makarow

European collaboration pays. The challenge is to persuade politicians that society and the economy benefit. But when the European Science Foundation was established 37 years ago to demonstrate the value of cross-border collaboration it was not the only example. As a young post-doc I experienced the excitement of working in an international environment at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. And the European particle-physics lab Cern is a brilliant example of what collaboration can do when you enter with goodwill, an open mind and bright ideas.

Cern is so much more than particle physics. Its experiments offer insights into the humanities, philosophy, even religion. And Cern is also a reminder that, to meet tomorrow’s challenges, European science has to co-operate across oceans, not just across continental borders, and be alive to the potential of co-operation with the emerging science nations, as Europe’s population and global economic importance diminish.

Just in time, we now have a European Research Council, and we will shortly know the content of the European Commission’s research-funding programme Horizon 2020. ESF has shaped some of the necessary strategic vision, and in my years as chief executive I have been proud of how rich the output has been. The briefings, papers and reports which ESF standing committees, expert boards and committees and staff have delivered in the social sciences, the humanities, physical and natural sciences, engineering, medical sciences, Earth and life, and environment provide a body of analysis, foresight and vision that will shape European science for years to come.

The same is true of two documents ESF and its members in 20 countries developed to address a huge challenge—wavering faith among both scientists and the public in the integrity of research. One sets out a means of harmonising peer review across Europe; the other is a code of research conduct. Their preparation took years of effort, but these foundations now allow scientists to concentrate on good research, trusting the assessment procedures of their applications, and trusting each other’s integrity.

ESF has also seized opportunities to reshape policy. The Animals Research Directive as introduced to the European Parliament threatened research into neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases. Three successive position papers from ESF’s European Medical Research Councils analysed the risks the draft directive posed for human society. The European Parliament adopted the changes and the end result is a good example of evidence-tested politics. Experts entered a dialogue and both parties listened and tried to find the right way to do things.

The approach to humanities has been dramatically modernised. The ESF Standing Committee for Humanities, ESF staff and experts have encouraged European collaboration among young scholars, developed a reference index for humanities publications and even begun a digital humanities research infrastructure. ESF has also worked hard and successfully to integrate our knowledge of human behaviour into technological approaches to the so-called Grand Challenges, and to get this idea embedded in wider European thinking.

I know that the last two years have not been easy for my ESF colleagues: the organisation’s future is not resolved and its owners—nearly 80 research funding and performing organisations, academies and learned societies in 30 countries—still have to work out a solution. I salute the staff and committees for their professionalism.

The changes we now face concerning ESF, the recently dissolved Eurohorcs and the newly established Science Europe are, I believe, inevitable [RE 27/10/11, p1]. Times are changing, the challenges are immense and the financial crisis is hitting hard. This is a necessary turning point, and I am reminded from my experience as a Finn that every crisis is an opportunity. Twenty years ago, when my country encountered its worst financial crisis in 100 years, the experience reinforced the notion of education, research and innovation as the solution. Finland emerged in record time and developed into a knowledge-based society well before the Lisbon Agenda was created.

But any organisation must preserve the best of its past. ESF has always had incredible power to attract the best scientists to deliver its agenda, people convinced of the value of what they are doing. Experts from many countries have worked together with a shared notion of the best way to do things, and that too must be carried forward.

Passion is inherent in scientists. ESF provided the forum and the focus for this passion. The staff at ESF work tirelessly, and they need to get through this period of change without losing the energy that comes with enthusiasm. All of us must maintain the passionate approach, and I hope that European science will continue to build on such strengths.

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Marja Makarow is vice-chairwoman of the European Research Area Board, and outgoing chief executive of the European Science Foundation.