Innovation is “not a linear progression of basic science into new products“. It requires “patience, persistence and investment”. This is from a call from the League of European Research Universities for the European Union to make substantial long-term investments in basic research via the European Research Council (ERC).
The alliance of 22 prominent European research-intensive universities, made the call, in a statement published in a number of European newspapers ahead of a meeting of European leaders on research and innovation policy, which was held on February 4th, 2011.
When was the last time you heard such a message in North America? There was Obama’s 2009 speech to the US National Academy of Sciences. But it is now history, since he is backpedaling fast, under the pressure of the new republican majority in the house, as he is being forced to cut the National Science Foundation.
What about Canada? Well, in its 2010–2011 Report on Plans and Priorities, NSERC announced its intention to reduce funding for basic research a further 3.6 per cent from $364.9 million in 2009–2010 to $351.9 million by 2012–2013. But here is NSERC’s explanation.
“The $356.4 million identified in the 2010-2011 Report on Plans and Priorities represents NSERC’s total planned spending on basic research, which includes more than just the Discovery Grants program. The expected reductions noted in this report reflect the termination of the Special Research Opportunity program and the winding down of support for International Polar Year projects. Actual spending on the Discovery Grants program shows steady increases over most of the past decade, with the budget remaining stable in recent years. NSERC plans modest increases over the next few years”
Compare NSERC’s cuts to basic research, its admittedly “modest” planned increases to the Discovery Grant program and the silence of Canada’s research universities, to the bold statements of the League of European Research Universities calling for “substantial long-term investments in basic research”.
Also compare the European stand to NSERC’s recent announcement of moving support from discovery to industry in the CREATE program. And only yesterday, they announced new money for “Colleges Technology Access Centres”, and for industrial postdoctoral fellowships.
NSERC and the government of Newfoundland will each contribute 30K for postdoctoral fellows who will be earning 70K each, in order to work as a full-time employee for a company that will be contributing 10K to the salary.
Research is “quite simply the foundation for Europe’s future competitiveness”, and the focus of universities on basic science “lays the foundation for discovery and innovation”, said the call of the league of European Universities. Their laboratories “develop the human capital that businesses need for success”, it adds. They also warn that “the world is not waiting for us”, citing the “soaring” investment of China in science.
The European Research Council was set up in 2007. How? “The idea for establishing the Council first came out of widespread discussions between European scientists, scholars and research umbrella organizations on the need for a structure at EU level to support investigator-driven fundamental research of the highest quality and combat the prevailing fragmentation of research efforts in Europe”.
Maybe we should renew our call for the establishment of a North-American Research Council? Why doesn’t the NAFTA concept extend to research and innovation?
Finally, the ERC aims to promote wholly investigator-driven, or ‘bottom-up’ frontier research. According to the council, the term ‘frontier research’ was coined for ERC activities since they will be directed towards fundamental advances at and beyond the ‘frontier’ of knowledge.
NSERC has also initiated a “Frontiers initiatives”.