Friday, March 09, 2012

European Research Council refuses to require anything but excellence in research

I have written many times about the relevance of basic research, and how important it is to not impose any artificial measures for success on scientists. If scientists are forced to justify their research by economic impact, not only do they have to waste time with a justification they're not educated for, it also inevitably creates short-term thinking and cuts off exactly those unforeseeable and unplannable breakthroughs we are hoping for.

Now the following awesome piece of news appeared in my feed: the Times Higher Education reports that Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, spoke at a conference in Brussels last week marking the fifth anniversary of the ERC's creation. She said in her address that the ERC, contrary to many national funding bodies, will not adopt an impact agenda, and will not require applicants to quantify their potential research outcome in terms that would please economists or politicians.

Nowtony acknowledged the tension between the need to take risks to make headway in fundamental research, and the - understandable - aversion to risk of policymakers and their "demands... for practical innovation, seen as the undisputed motor of...economic growth". But she stood by her principles:

"One answer is to target resources... to look to strategic sectors, to put science to work on the most pressing problems. It all looks so easy, so obvious. But frontier science does not work like this. We cannot programme scientific breakthroughs or order them from a menu... We can't foresee the consequences of what we discover."

It is noteworthy that Nowotny is an emeritus professor of the social studies of science at ETH Z├╝rich. I am very sure that her opinion is backed up by science rather than based on personal belief.

She said it so well, the only thing I can add is "Bravo!"

21 comments:

Phil Warnell said...
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Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

It’s nice to see a scientist being honest about the limits one needs to place on basic research in terms of guaranteed economic impact. The end result however will be that when it comes to shaping our world respective of policies relating to the direction of resource, scientists will remain to have little to say; although admittedly what they discover to have great impact. That is in a world where its politics and economy is run by the principle of what have you done for me lately , I’m afraid the accomplishments of scientists made some fifty years ago and more will not be seen as lately enough. However, this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of science and scientists, yet simply to emphasis the state of our current geopolitical/economic reality.

“'Unless,' said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings:. and rulers take to the pursuit of' philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsorily excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy for the human race either. Nor, until this happens, will this constitution which we have been expounding in theory ever be put into practice within the limits of possibility and see the light of the sun.”

-Plato, “The Republic”- Volume 1, Book V,

[When asked 'Dr. Einstein, why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?] “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.”

— Albert Einstein (Einstein's answer to a conferee at a meeting at Princeton, N.J. (Jan 1946), as recalled by Greenville Clark in 'Letters to the Times', in New York Times (22 Apr 1955)

Best,

Phil

Giotis said...

"But frontier science does not work like this. We cannot programme scientific breakthroughs or order them from a menu"

Yes you can if you pour money into it. One characteristic example is the construction of the atomic bomb by the Americans.

Phil Warnell said...
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Phil Warnell said...

Hi Goitis,

That was not the funding of the discovery of new science, yet the funding to have realized one of its already discovered potentials; in other words what is known as the creation of technology. You should read perhaps the thought’s of Mike Lazaridis regarding the important differences between the two.

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

Hi Bee,

I am not so sure that scientists are not engaged in the process of overseeing the direction research should be focused in, in the long term projects, or, how could any government allocate moneys to fund scientific research?

Of course there are private research firms who specialized in the direction that a firm wishes to go. But in the larger perspective, scientist have to gather to ask them self if the markers are being met in the projects that have been selected so as to discern whether funding should continue or not. Had they come to a dead end or need to recoup the forces as to whether the parameters that had been set up are phenomenological suited to the questions science has to ask?

So like being honest in the search for truth of ones research such a question has to be maintained in the overall of goal of scientific research? Such objectified goals as has been demonstrated are as if the questions about that science are fundamentally being meet, and not just a choice to allocate so much money to research.

So what does the future require of that research to push society forward?

Best,

Bee said...

Hi Plato,

Yes, scientists are engaged in overseeing research directions that money flows in. But the ERC funds what they call "frontier-research" which is by design not the sort of research you can plan by pouring money into it. (The NSF calls it "transformative," same thing, different wrapper.)

One can debate whether creating incentives by money is useful for research that falls not into this area, the sort of research that is plannable. I am skeptic even of the merits in this case, not because it doesn't work at all, but because it's not a good return on investment. Pretty much by design you push people into areas they wouldn't by themselves consider promising, in the hope to dig up enough stuff that makes a basis for a breakthrough. I see that there is a societal need (think cancer research) but I'm not at all sure it's the wisest way to proceed. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I was about to say the same that Phil already said. You might be able to push on research when the basis is already there by pouring money into what can be planned. But that's not the type of research I (or the ERC) is concerned with. The type of research here is that which is difficult if not impossible to foresee. The question is who would have funded Einstein's research. We need funding bodies who do fund exactly that type of research. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

That might be the status, but it doesn't have to remain this way. I'm having one of my optimistic days, and therefore I'll put forward my hope that policy decisions will become more scientific, both in content as well as in procedure, in the next decades. It is the only way we'll be able to solve our problems. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

Imagination is intelligence having fun, endangering well-ordered zero-risk administrative despotism (saepe errans, numquam dubitans). Opposite shoes violate the Equivalence Principle without contradicting prior observation. Vacuum trace anisotropy plus Noether's theorems then trace non-conserve angular momentum. Milgrom acceleration is universally sourced, dark matter and its $100+ million funding end. A geometric parity Eotvos experiment delivers in 90 days.

1) Be a prodigy; 2) the "AHA!" moment; 3) TRIZ (Genrich Altshuller); 4) be original; 5) Old data, new interpretation; 6) serendipity; 7) piss-offedness. The Fifth Force was (5). "We are not seeking this solution." "This experiment has no precedent." Throw a 10% budget bone to the unlovable Severely Gifted. They are easily discarded after success.

Giotis said...

Well check their Web site to see the kind of projects they fund. If this is their definition of frontier research then nuclear power research in the 40s was definitely frontier research too.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

You can count me to be the last person to wish to spoil your day and would be the first to hope you’re right about this. That is blue sky research needs its patrons and as it appears there are only a few entities such as the ERC who actually understands why.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Well, whether they manage to live up to their own agenda is a different question. This is much more difficult because all actual grant decisions are made by committees, so there's the community exerting conservatism, notwithstanding what the headline says. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

I guess you are right...

Let's take a concrete example though. Is the String vacuum project the kind of frontier research you have in mind?

If so do you believe that pouring money and resources into it would not help them achieve their ultimate goal, that is to identify the particular ground sate of String theory which correctly describes the Cosmos we inhabit?

I like this example; I think is characteristic.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I don't know, I'm not the ERC. Clearly I think the ERC should above all things support research on the phenomenology of quantum gravity... About the string vacuum project, I'd like to see their proposal, how else should I make up my mind? Best,

B.

Giotis said...

"Clearly I think the ERC should above all things support research on the phenomenology of quantum gravity..."

Above all things?

This is a joke or you really mean it? :-)

Bee said...

That was a joke, sorry if that wasn't obvious. It was meant to say your question seemed to expect me to make an off-hand judgement on the promise of somebody else's research project of which I haven't even seen a proposal. I have no basis on which to make such a judgement. I'm not competent to answer your question. Best,

B.

Plato said...

In case people were further interested.

ERC:European Research Council

Best,

Plato said...

Check out Voices of http://vimeo.com/37605196

Zephir said...
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Zephir said...

Of course it's stupidity to support the research without practical applications into account of this one, which has such an applications. The only result will be, we will have no money for any research