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Magic circle

Bringing an original approach to policy ideas

Conferences on research policy have a disappointing tendency to preach to the converted, with groups of people who already know each other repeating messages that they’ve all heard far too often before.

A gathering in Berlin this month tried out a fresh approach to this eternal challenge. The Falling Walls Circle, held on 10 November, brought together decision makers from academia, industry and government to seek new angles on the policy issues facing European research.

Sitting 80 participants around an immense, round table in Germany’s foreign office set a different tone for participants from a typical policy event. Participants included Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to Commission president José Manuel Barroso, junior ministers from Germany, industry chief executives and young researchers from institutes across Europe.

Falling Walls had more energy and buzz than many conventional events, and reflected efforts being made across the globe to find a more exciting conference format. At the FOO (Friends of O’Reilly) Camp in California, for example, invited guests from the tech scene have gathered each year since 2002 to pitch their tents, and then develop a loose programme for discussions on big whiteboards. While Falling Walls participants weren’t required to bring their own cooking utensils, the event shared the basic idea of bringing diverse opinions together.

The gathering followed two days of related events: in one of them, 100 young researchers each gave three-minute presentations on their visionary idea for the future of science. In awarding a €1,000 prize for the best contribution to a young farmer who hopes to use sauerkraut juice to stabilise manure, organisers showed themselves to be worthy innovators.

At the circle itself, off-the-record discussions centred on four main issues: excellence versus capacity building; top-down versus bottom-up funding; encouraging young research talent; and linking science with industrial competitiveness.

Some discussions were as predictable as the list of topics: everyone agreed, for example, that both top-down and bottom-up approaches have their place. But perhaps the most arresting feature was the forcefulness with which younger speakers criticised the prevalent structure of the European research system, and its failure to give researchers freedom or independence early in their careers. What these speakers want is more tenure-track positions, of the type often available to the brightest minds at US universities. Despite the Bologna reform process, little headway has been made to open such positions in European universities.

Nathalie Martin-Hübner, managing director of the Falling Walls Foundation, says she believes the pilot event was a success in bringing different types of participants around one table, in an environment where they could talk openly. The circle will be repeated annually, and Martin-Hübner says the format will become even less structured to facilitate ideas. Some will dismiss the event as just another gabfest—and indeed there is no formal process to take its conclusions forward. But at least the organisers are attempting to find ways to tease out innovative ideas in research policy, at a time when budget pressure and political turmoil mean such ideas are in even greater demand.