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A mere curiosity?

Academics want blue-skies research—politicians often don’t

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is hard to gauge. The immediate costs—lives lost, mental health decline, businesses bust—are still rising. But what of the hidden impact, which may be with us for years? 

One aspect of this is that government spending is under increased public scrutiny. Many countries were ill-prepared for a pandemic, and the vaccine rollout has been chaotic in even some of the most organised nations. Now the public want to know where their tax money is going and what they get in return. Such scrutiny is welcome, but the flip side is that politicians will be more wary of taking risks with public money and may find themselves beholden to populist opinion. Add to that an economic downturn and budget cuts—once stimulus efforts are over—and it equals a potential crisis for blue-skies research. 

The trends are there already. The Netherlands this year upped funding for mission-driven programmes—funding academic research in support of political priorities—with its €20 billion National Growth Fund. Denmark’s Research and Innovation Policy Council announced in March that it would evaluate the “success” of such missions in improving interdisciplinarity and innovativeness—implying that such success definitely exists. In Germany, the Hightech Forum, which advises the government on science policy, released a report last week recommending that missions ensure “top research results” help the country meet political and economic goals. And missions have been a much-trumpeted introduction to the EU’s R&D scheme, Horizon Europe.

But the creativity and inspiration needed to achieve true breakthroughs in science do not thrive on constriction—and so universities are alarmed. Attendants at the European University Association annual conference heard this month that the balance between basic and mission-driven research may be getting out of kilter—to the detriment of curiosity. 

This is exacerbated by politicians seeing universities as problem-solving stations on tap: point at a problem, hand over a cheque and sit back while the solution materialises. But research thrives on openness and exchange. Game-changing discoveries result from dogged pursuit of personal interests as well as top-down targeted work.  

The EUA conference mentioned the Covid-19 vaccine as an example. Before the pandemic, funding for, and political interest in, coronavirus vaccine research programmes was low—yet the work done by researchers in spite of this laid the groundwork for the delivery of life-saving vaccines. The lesson? In research, political priorities alone do not guarantee success. 

That is not to say societal concerns should not matter to research. But rather than prescribing the application of funds from the outset, politicians should spend more on supporting cooperation between researchers, industry and the public. They should trust researchers’ judgment, and when that is proven correct, they should supply generous, risk-friendly funding to bring results to market. 

Missions have the potential to make politicians and the public excited about research, but they must not be pitted against blue-sky thinking. Otherwise, curiosity-driven research risks becoming just that: a curiosity. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe