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EFA2020 BreakoutSession
Where does the scope for research policy action begin and where does it end in order to enable excellence with relevance? Eva Maria Binder, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Tan Eng Chye, Merle Jacob and James Wilsdon discussed these questions virtually at the invitation of the BMBWF and FWF at the Alpbach Technology Forum 2020.

How can we create the conditions for a prospering research ecosystem? In the breakout session ‘Return on Investment: Excellence & Relevance in Science’, organised by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, a high-level international panel discussed the needs of a future-oriented research environment at this year’s Forum Alpbach.

Here the ‘excellent’ research which, through the investment of large amounts of time and money, expands the limits of knowledge and shares its results worldwide, there the ‘relevant’ research that quickly leads to new products and services and immediately creates added value. These two types of research are often presented as diametrical opposites. But are they really opposed? How can we find the right balance between these two approaches? And what kinds of conditions need to be created in terms of diversity, interdisciplinarity, mobility, and other aspects to ensure successful and future-oriented science and research?

These are some of the questions that were discussed during the ‘Return on Investment: Excellence & Relevance in Science’ breakout session which took place on 28 August 2020 as part of the Technology Forum of the European Forum Alpbach, held this year as an online conference due to the coronavirus. Organised by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science (BMBWF), a high-level panel exchanged their thoughts on current and foreseeable demands facing successful research systems. The event was hosted by FWF President Klement Tockner and the Director General of Scientific Research and International Affairs in the BMBWF, Barbara Weitgruber.

Research as an ecosystem

The opening statements made it clear that excellent and relevant research cannot be considered in isolation from the entire ecosystem of scientific, academic, and research activity. Tan Eng Chye, President of the National University of Singapore, illustrated this state of affairs with the example of the Singapore government’s five-year research plans which cover the entire spectrum from basic research to the added value for companies. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Interim President of the European Research Council (ERC), also pointed to Singapore as a role model, where a total of three percent of the country’s gross domestic product goes towards research. ‘We are still far away from reaching the EU’s declared goal of three percent research expenditure by 2020’, said Bourguignon, ‘even though some countries like Austria, the Nordic countries, or now Germany have succeeded in achieving this goal’. Bourguignon highlighted the support of young and interdisciplinary researchers as particularly relevant strategies of the ERC.

Eva Maria Binder, Director of the Executive Board of the Erber Group in Tulln, which specialises in animal nutrition and health businesses, shared her thoughts from the corporate side, where everything revolves around publicly and privately funded research collaborations and networking. A key factor in her company’s success has been its early focus on research and development, where six percent of sales revenues currently go—not including the research funding from the public sector. Binder stressed that researchers working in industry are also given freedom in their research and that there must be room for basic research, too.  

Merle Jacob, Director of Third Cycle Studies at Lund University in Sweden, pointed out that science and academia have many other tasks to perform apart from excellent research. The challenge is also to fulfil daily needs such as teaching, for example. ‘The question is what would a strategy look like that could create a productive balance between relevance and excellence’, said Jacob. At the same time, we cannot forget that the research system of each member country is part of the bigger ecosystem of the EU.  

Critical look at ‘excellence’


James Wilsdon, Digital Science Professor of Research Policy at the University of Sheffield in the UK and Director of the London Research on Research Institute RoRI, emphasised the importance of a critical examination of excellence within science and academia itself. ‘“Excellence” is not an easy term to grasp. It always depends on the criteria used’, said Wilsdon. ‘All too often the concept of excellence is made measurable by relying on a too narrowly defined set of metrics and key indicators’. Critical voices such as these are also growing louder in the research community.

The debate and the audience’s questions directed the focus of the breakout session to a number of major issues within the field of research—from the possibility of a universal basic income for researchers to potential models for implementing ambitious and high-risk research projects.

FWF President Tockner, for instance, raised the question of how to confront young researchers’ fears of hurting their careers if they engage in interdisciplinary work at too early a stage. While Tan acknowledged this phenomenon and also questioned the evaluation process within the sciences, Bourguignon emphasised the importance of providing training that prepared young researchers for interdisciplinarity— they should gain experience in a variety of research cultures and this should be part of building their identities as young researchers. Jacob stated that, despite the focus on young researchers, we should not forget that the research system as a whole should furnish interdisciplinarity. Therefore, incentive systems are also needed for different career stages.

Brain circulation instead of brain drain

The discussion also touched on the subjects of researcher mobility, the frequently mentioned brain drain, and recruiting strategies. Wilsdon criticised the lack of ‘porosity’ within science and research: ‘It’s hard to get in and hard to get out again’. Experience outside the universities would better prepare researchers for interdisciplinary work. Tan highlighted the importance of a ‘critical mass of smart people’ at an institution, which could attract others like them and thus prevent brain drain. Jacob once again offered a position from the perspective of the entire system, which ‘to a certain degree is dependent on virtual and physical mobility’.

If you can produce researchers who are sought elsewhere, this is at least a sign that you’re doing something right. Jacob found it problematic to speak of brain drain; she saw it rather as a ‘question of circulation’. Wilsdon also responded in the same vein: for him, the key to success lies in long-term, steady investments in institutions—just like flexible and individual mobility within the system. His biggest worries concerned precisely those long-term investments—and the patience of funders and universities.

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