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Dear Dr Berhe, dear Dr Adams, dear organisers, dear ladies and gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here as part of this year’s Science Summit. Today we will discuss the role and contribution of science to attaining the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
One of the objectives of this summit is to provide input for the Summit of the Future planned for September next year. That promises to be a critical milestone in the development of more comprehensive and effective global cooperation on a whole range of pressing issues.So this is an important debate and I am looking forward to hearing from the impressive line-up of invited speakers.
My own background is as a developmental biologist and immunologist. My career has taken me from Germany to Switzerland, to the UK, the US and France and back to Germany again. I was the director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) from 2010 to 2021. And I still lead research groups at the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne and the EMBL in Heidelberg.
So you will not be surprised when I say that I have tremendous faith in the power of science as a potential force for good. I have no doubt that science can improve people’s lives and help to achieve important objectives such as the Sustainable Development Goals.
Today, I am speaking in my capacity as President of the European Research Council (ERC) which I have had the honour to lead since November 2021. The European Research Council was first set up in 2007. The ERC is the European Union’s flagship funder of frontier research with an annual budget of over two billion euros.
Our aim is to provide flexible, long-term funding to high potential individual researchers. ERC grantees can be of any nationality and work in any field, including the social sciences and humanities. The aim is to give ERC grantees the freedom to develop ambitious projects of their own choosing.
The philosophy of the ERC rests on the idea that researchers know best the most promising research areas to explore. We call it the bottom-up approach. We trust the best to push the frontiers of our knowledge.
But how does this approach help us to solve global challenges and key objectives such as the Sustainable Development Goals?
Science is, at its core, an attempt to understand the world around us. And I for one believe that this is a worthwhile end in itself. But what gives science its transformative impact is that by understanding the world we can change the world.
Without understanding there are no real solutions to problems. And sometimes solutions come from a totally unexpected path. Advances in one area, sometimes very theoretical ones, open up opportunities in other areas, sometimes unexpected ones. Serendipity is often at play. That is why focusing all our efforts only on known problems or known solutions can be counterproductive. We need to support research across a broad front because we simply do not know what we do not know. In this way, frontier research can help us prepare for unpredictable future crises.
And let me be clear. When I say understanding the world, I don’t just mean understanding the natural or living world. I also mean understanding the human world. The social sciences and humanities play a vital role. In understanding the past and the present. In understanding the structures of our societies and economies. And in contributing new ideas about how to live sustainably, how to confront inequality, and how we might work and live and educate ourselves in future.
These bottom-up activities do not just create a foundation for later applied research or innovation. The work of ERC grantees directly contributes to achieving our goals in the here and now on a daily basis.
The pandemic has given us a spectacular example of the effectiveness of investing in frontier research with the development of the mRNA vaccines.
Ugur Sahin and his team developed the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine within months of the outbreak. They had been working on the possible use of mRNA technology for individualised cancer vaccines. But they were very quickly able to shift their research to developing a vaccine for COVID-19. Sahin received support from many sources, including an ERC grant as well as funding and loans from other EU programmes. The key fact is that Sahin’s work was based on five decades of previous mRNA research. The idea of using mRNA for therapeutic purposes was first proposed in the early 90s.
And this is not just a one-off. A recent in-depth analysis looked at the contribution of EU research funding to other COVID-19 related researc. This analysis showed that EU research funding has contributed to about 3,000 research papers on COVID-19. As you would expect a large number of these papers were funded by the EU’s health research budget (808 papers). But the second highest number of relevant papers came from ERC projects (607 papers) chosen in a completely bottom-up way.
A different study showed similar results for the 2,500 EU funded publications referenced in the four reports of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment cycle. 854 of these publications came from ERC projects. Again, chosen in a completely bottom-up way.
The ERC has also just published its own analysis of all projects it funded under Horizon 2020. A series of fact sheets showcase the rich diversity of the funded research with projects in many emerging areas of science. But this also showed that 34% of the analysed ERC projects are likely to contribute to health policies, including in cancer, brain and human mind research. One in ten projects addressed problems linked to the digital transition, half of which were in the area of artificial intelligence. And, 14% were found to be relevant to climate policies and green solutions.
So not only do we see that ERC grantees push the frontiers of knowledge, but the study also highlights that this knowledge is actively contributing to political priorities.
This report refutes the view that you have to tell researchers what to do because otherwise they’ll never get down to practical matters and urgent problems. Nothing is further from the truth! So, my message to all research policy makers is: trust researchers and give them the means to pursue their best ideas! That’s the best investment in our future.
And I do not think that developing a trained science base is a luxury. Such a base gives individuals, firms and countries the “absorption capacity” to identify and assimilate potentially exploitable knowledge created elsewhere. But as a final point, I want to add a note of caution.
I think that few would deny that our understanding of the world is now greater than it has ever been. And few would deny that our world has been transformed in countless ways since the start of the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution that followed.
What we can deny is the naïve idea of the past that technical and material progress will lead automatically to moral progress. We have not seen an end to suffering, inequality and war. Indeed we have seen that science can produce terrible new weapons of war. And here we are in the second decade of the 21st Century. Faced with the realisation that our own actions have been causing irreparable damage to nature and warming the atmosphere, with dire repercussions for our planet and our way of life.
So how do we explain this? Richard Feynman, the renowned physicist said: “scientiﬁc knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things… Scientiﬁc knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad - but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.”
So this is my reason for caution. By understanding the world we can change the world. But we still need to decide how we want to change the world.
Indeed I would argue that it is a form of “scientific populism” to promote the view that science can easily be directed towards political aims and solving the problems of society. If we believe this uncritically then it can become a problem in itself.
This idea can let our political leaders and all of us off the hook. If science can solve all our problems then maybe we don’t have to make the difficult decisions to change our economies and societies now. Maybe we can wait for the scientists to pull a rabbit out of the hat and carry on exactly as before!
But science is hard. The natural and human worlds are very complex. Trying to understand even small parts of them can take years of painstaking work. Sometimes we need to take one step backward in order to move two steps forward. There is no guarantee of what we will find.
So, I am convinced that science can and will be part of the solution to many of our pressing problems. But science cannot solve these problems alone. Science does not mean we can avoid difficult decisions or put off necessary changes. Remember that, scientiﬁc knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad - but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.