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MIoIR. ‘Frontier research’ and the European Research Council: a connection still to build?. P. Larédo, Universities of Paris-Est & Manchester IGS - EU SPRI FORUM conference on tentative governance in emerging S&Y Twente, 28-29 October 2010. Contents.

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frontier research and the european research council a connection still to build


‘Frontier research’ and the European Research Council: a connection still to build?

P. Larédo, Universities of Paris-Est & Manchester

IGS - EU SPRI FORUM conference on tentative governance in emerging S&Y

Twente, 28-29 October 2010

  • Frontier research as politically-driven rationale: EU and US rationales
  • Looking at different types of implementation
  • Positioning the ERC answer- a redefinition of frontier through peer review processes- from theories to facts: a revised view?
  • Shaping a potential path for evolution: the ERC as the ‘agency of agencies’
2 types of rationales underlying policy making
2 types of rationales underlying policy making
  • L. Bach (2007, PRIME EPOM project)
  • Production policy rationales: emanating from scholarly conceptual developments (e.g. market failure, science as a public good…)
  • Governance policy rationales: derived from practice and causal beliefs produced in the course of actions. One famous ‘recent’ example: collaborative programmes

--> consider Frontier research as a ‘type 2’ rationale for public action.

frontier research in action
Frontier research ‘in action’
  • A famous origin - science the endless frontier - recently revived:
  • Not only Europe and the ERC, also the US and the NSB, NSF, NIH and DoE.
  • Two terminologies: ‘frontier research’ and ‘transformative science’
  • Converging views and revealing differences.
erc frontier research extracts of the 2008 work programme
ERC & Frontier research (extracts of the 2008 work programme)
  • The fundamental principle for all ERC activities is that of stimulating investigator-initiated frontier research across all fields of research, on the basis of excellence.
  • ERC Advanced Grants provide an opportunity to established scientists and scholars to pursue frontier research of their choice.
  • Advanced Grants are intended to promote substantial advances in the frontiers of knowledge … including unconventional approaches and investigations at the interface between established disciplines
  • (projects should) demonstrate the ground-breaking nature of the research
defining frontier research
Defining Frontier Research

HLEG 2005. Members: B. Martin, S. Kuhlmann, A. Bonaccorsi, P. Stephan

  • Classical distinctions between basic and applied have lost much of their relevance… prefer to use the term frontier research to basic research
  • Following characteristics:- at the forefront of creating new knowledge and new understanding. “Those involved are responsible for fundamental discoveries and advances in theoretical and empirical understanding, and even achieving the occasional revolutionary breakthrough that completely changes our knowledge of the world”. - risky endeavour- concerned with bothnew knowledge about the world and with generating potentially useful knowledge at the same time- Frontier research pursues questions irrespective of established disciplinary boundaries
defining transformative research
Defining ‘transformative research’

(US) National Science Board, 2007

  • Science progresses in two fundamental and equally valuable ways.
  • The vast majority of scientific understanding advances incrementally … Progress is evolutionary - it extends and shifts prevailing paradigms over time
  • Less frequently, scientific understanding advances dramatically, through the application of radically different approaches or interpretations that result in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. This progress is revolutionary, for it transforms science by overthrowing entrenched paradigms and generating new ones.
  • The research that comprises this latter form of scientific progress (is) termed transformative research. This pathway is marked by its challenges to prevailing scientific orthodoxies.
transformative research in act
Transformative research in act
  • Answer 1: Business as usual NSF and the inclusion of one new selection criteria: To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  • Answer 2: Add another instrument to the portfolio (keeping the rest untouched) NIH and a specific programme: Pioneer awards “to support individual scientists of exceptional quality”
  • Answer 3: Build a radically new process tailored to the area considered (see Bonaccorsi’s introduction to this conference)
doe energy frontier research centers
DoE Energy Frontier Research Centers
  • ‘Incremental advances in current energy technologies will not address the energy challenges of the 21st century. History has demonstrated that radically new technologies arise from disruptive advances at the science frontiers’(2008)
  • A process: BESAC report (2003), ‘basic research needs workshops’ (3 years, 1500 participants, 12 reports), policy paper in 2008, Call in 2009, 47 centers and 800 m $
  • 5 scientific grand challenges‘which no longer were discussed in terms of traditional scientific disciplines’ and which ‘described a new era of science’
  • A tailored approach to research production in Energy: ‘Energy Frontier Research Centers will bring together the skills and talents of multiple investigators to enable research of a scope and complexity that would not be possible with the standard individual investigator or small group award’.

Return to Europe and the ERC

  • Rephrasing the question for ERC and ‘frontier research’: Is the process adequate? Can ERC cater for different knowledge dynamics?
  • ERC implementation structures and operations at a glance:- addresses single principal investigators through 2 ‘all over the board’ calls: starting and advanced grant schemes- functions through 25 panels made of a dozen peers for over 340 areas identified

ERC Process: ‘frontier science’ and peer review processes

  • Wood & Wessely (2003): no clear evidence to substantiate any view point.
  • Yalow (1982): ‘The need to promote scientific revolutions and the outcome of peer review are in opposition”
  • NSB very negative views (see next slide)
  • Lamont’s illuminating work on interdisciplinary grant committees: ‘procedural fairness’ is warranted on “respecting disciplinary sovereignty” on two grounds: - epistemological styles (Mallard, 2006): what makes proposals robust- location/positioning in the explicit or implicit research agenda of the discipline

NSB ‘evaluation’

  • Transformative research frequently does not fit comfortably within the scope of project-focused, innovative, step-by-step research
  • … nor does it tend to fare well wherever a review system is dominated by experts highly invested in current paradigms or during times of especially limited budgets that promote aversion to risk
  • Experts in the areas being challenged (many of whom may sit on review panels) may dismiss such ideas by pronouncing the research overreaching or without basis.

ERC Process: ‘frontier science’ redefined through peer review processes

  • Frontier research = those cases that do not follow dominant disciplinary styles and/or position themselves outside the ‘mainstream’ agenda
  • Frontier research as a left over:- committees are quite good at eliminating ‘bad’ proposals (van der Besselaer & Leydesdorff, 2008)- committees privilege ‘evolutionary projects’- space for ‘frontier research’ depends on the selection pressure
  • Conclusion: above a certain pressure (success ratio), ERC will only marginally fund ‘frontier research’
from theories to facts
From theories to facts
  • The rate of selection is now around 15%, not different to what is observed in different national funding agencies
  • But the size of grants is large (1.5 million for a starting grant on average)
  • Heinze et al. (2009) tell us that a key criterion for creativity in science is ‘large, multiyear, flexible’ funding.
  • Should we link this to a recent surprising fact: One of the 2010 Nobel prize winners (Novosolov) is the recipient of a starting grant (!)
  • Is thus the answer, size of grant, and the interpretation: the ability to play a double game, meaning that beyond a certain size, justifications and argumentation only cover a limited fraction of the grant, thus there is no need to be ‘over’ challenging….
implications questions raised
Implications & questions raised
  • Implication 1: though a left-over, there will be a number of scientific breakthroughs nurtured by ERC.But to paraphrase Bozeman about the role of military funding on innovation in the US: one needs not consider efficiency issues.
  • Implication 2: this drives to politically shift the balance in political terms between ‘excellence’ and ‘frontier research’
  • Question: if the ERC is already at a quasi-standard rate of success in the world of European funding agencies, how will it cope with its planned increase of resources? Can it increase present schemes? What about new schemes?

Elements to consider for new schemes focused on frontier research (1)

1 Rationale for more direct targeting on frontier research

  • Going back to the so-called European paradox: EU is good at science and poor at innovation
  • Debate (1): EU is good at incremental science (Dosi, Bonaccorsi) & poor at ‘frontier research’- One marker: Nobel prize winners and the 3 to 1 ratio in favour of US- Policy translation: research performers too fragmented (thus centres of excellence, NoE, EIT…)
  • Debate (2): core fragmentation is at funding level and explains differences- the ERA rationales report (Georghiou et al, 2008)- size of funding pools central (organisational differences) central (Laredo 2004, cf appendix to this presentation)

Conclusion: need for greater articulation between national and European levels to create coordinated funding pools


Elements to consider for new schemes

focused on frontier research (2)

2 Build on existing practices & policy discourse

  • How to create critical size pools?- build on the lasting success of ERA-Nets and the increasing collaborative move between national EU agencies- Join the band and adopt the ‘joint programming’
  • How to adapt to different knowledge dynamics (‘one size does not fit all’)?- recognize that most ERA-Nets are thematically driven- build on the DOE process and join the European fashion of ‘vision shaping’
an exotic answer the erc as the agency of agencies
An exotic answer: the ERC as the ‘agency of agencies’
  • A learning path: the ERC keeps part of its funds for ‘joint programming’ with national agencies
  • A standing forum to select challenging issues (multiple possible alleys including calls for want-to-be areas)
  • ERA-Net like structures to define directions (the DoE type basic research grand challenges) and to organise selection processes
  • Adapted instruments to cater for the specificity of themes/domains (e.g. DOE EFRC)
us eu difference in breakthrough science a conjecture
US-EU difference in breakthrough science: a conjecture
  • Take one field and suppose equivalent investments between EU and US (e.g. chemistry and catalysis)
  • US intervention concentrated at Federal level with 3 agencies (e.g. NSF, DoD & DoE), used to collaborate (e.g. National Nanotechnology Initiative); In Europe, at least 10 agencies & programmes, loosely coupled.
  • Suppose US spends 100, 70 on ‘mainstream’ agenda, and 30 on multiple heterodox alleys
  • EU has similar ‘mainstream’ agenda and professional agencies that want to insure critical mass: overall result: 85% of total funds on mainstream agenda.
  • EU agencies do not coordinate choices in frontier research and thus aggregate on the most likely.
  • Overall result: 4 times less alleys explored and thus 4 times less potential ‘Nobelisable’ science