IntroductionDiscussion event with Professor Helga Nowotny
Professor Helga Nowotny, Vice-President of the European Research Council and Professor Emeritus of the ETH Zurich, visited Egenis to give a seminar at Egenis entitled ‘The Transparent Gene’. She also met the University's Vice Chancellor and senior academics, and took part in a discussion of current European research funding issues relevant to higher education in the UK.
At the discussion event, ‘European Science Policy and European Integration’, Prof Nowotny was joined on the panel by Professor Claudio Radaelli (Politics) and Mr Marco Liverani (Egenis). The event was introduced by DVC Professor Roger Kain and chaired by Dr Christine Hauskeller (Egenis).
“We were delighted, and very fortunate, to welcome Helga Nowotny,’ said Dr Hauskeller, who initiated the visit. “She is an outstanding sociologist of science and a very influential figure in the setting of European research policy.,” Professor Nowotny is Emerita from the ETH Zurich.
In his introduction to the discussion, Professor Kain highlighted the funding cuts in UK higher education, and pointed out that further changes may be in store following the imminent general election. “There are tensions between political interest on the one hand and scientific interest on the other,” he said.
“Academic values and professional traditions do not align easily with the political expectation for sustained highest profile science, quick delivery, measurable outputs and rapid social impact,” agreed Dr Hauskeller. “We want to discuss how politics uses science, including social sciences, particularly at the European level.”
Professor Nowotny suggested that the ERC has had some important effects since it started with the present framework programme in 2007. “There is true competition between universities now at the European level, not just the national level,” she said. “We are nurturing young researchers. We are trying to come up with a European culture of evaluation.”
Discussing his analysis of European policy approaches to research funding, particularly in biotechnology, Marco Liverani suggested that, “The pursuit of excellence in science can frustrate the notion of science as a platform for European integration.” Looking at the field of stem cell research, for example, it was apparent that funding was weighted heavily towards just a few countries, with others, particularly newer member states, not being included.
Professor Radaelli pointed out that, for social science in particular, evaluation is an issue. “Policymakers have to question, ‘Are we designing the instruments the right way, and are they effective?’ But this evaluation is only one theme of social science in science policy research. Another is the reflection on the unintended or hidden effects of an instrument.” He also agreed that competition is an important complicating factor, and suggested that there is a concern that a focus on excellence may increase disparities.
Professor Nowotny explained the ERC’s strict bottom-up approach. “There is no thematic priority. There is no ‘juste retour’, money will not flow back, distribution will not be equitable; panels look only at what is the best project on the table. Science is not a democratic system.” But, she said, although there would inevitably be clustering, it was important to remember that the ERC funds individuals, not institutions, networks or consortia, and that its focus is on excellence, while its peer review system in the most interdisciplinary in the world.