Weakened by the economic crisis, European science faces increased competition from emerging countries. Former European Research Council President Helga Nowotny shares her vision for the future of European research.
TECHNOLOGIST The rise of countries like China and Brazil is changing the scientific landscape. What is Europe’s place in this new world order?
HELGA NOWOTNY Even if Europe keeps investing and publishing at the present rate, its percentage in scientific publications will decrease. The once exclusive domination of the U.S., Europe and Japan will give way to other potent players in the scientific and technological landscape. In such regions as Southeast Asia, R&D investments have already translated into significantly higher numbers of researchers and scientific publications.
On the other hand, the overall quality of European science remains very high. Some countries like the UK invest heavily in the life sciences and the biomedical sectors, which will ensure that Europe will remain a scientific hotspot. The vision of creating a European Research Area is still far from complete.
TECHNOLOGIST What was the impact of the euro crisis on science, particularly in Southern Europe?
HELGA NOWOTNY Greece, Spain and Portugal were among those hit hardest. This is tragic for science and especially for the younger generation’s career prospects. It takes years of training to become a researcher. If young researchers no longer see a future in science, they either have to leave their country or abandon science altogether. The European Research Area must be strengthened. This would enable far greater flexibility and mobility, including the possibility of returning to their home countries once the situation has improved.
TECHNOLOGIST Europe still lags behind in the creation of “blockbuster” start-ups. Can politicians help or is something else needed?
HELGA NOWOTNY Compared to the U.S., Europe has far less venture capital at its disposal. It took decades to set up a European Patent, and bureaucratic obstacles to the creation of start-ups are still staggering in some countries.
The U.S. also has a “culture of failure”, meaning that failure is accepted and even expected as part of the process of innovation, whereas in some parts of Europe failure is still frowned upon, if not penalised. We urgently need a culture shift. Governments can help ease access to the market and facilitate a closer relationship between universities and industry. But in the end the culture shift cannot come top-down. It must grow bottom-up, with the younger generation of researchers in the forefront. We should do everything to promote their entrepreneurial spirit.
TECHNOLOGIST The European Union likes very large projects, including in science. Does it need more bottom-up funding opportunities for researchers?
HELGA NOWOTNY The European Research Council will continue to provide ample opportunity for funding bottom-up research. It makes up 17 per cent of the budget for the upcoming research and innovation programme “Horizon 2020”, which itself is up 30 per cent over the previous programme. This is in recognition of its success in the past and augurs well for the future. Bottom-up initiatives will be strengthened in general.
Interview by Serge Maillard