The Importance of Frontier Research
24 October 2022
ERC President Professor Maria Leptin's speech at European Academy of Sciences ceremony
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Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have been asked to speak to you today about the importance of frontier research.

In some ways it is strange to be asked to talk to you about this subject at this event.

I expect that most of you here have dedicated your lives and careers to pursuing frontier research. Certainly that is the case for many of you that I know personally.

The aim of the European Academy of Sciences is to promote science and technology and their essential roles in fostering social and economic development.

So I do not think that I need to convince you about this.

The issue is that we rely on the support of others in order to be able to carry out our work.

It is vital that politicians and policy makers and citizens and society as a whole understand the importance of frontier research.

And there are powerful arguments for supporting frontier research, which I will get to. But, unfortunately there is no magic formula which is guaranteed to persuade politicians and policy makers to support frontier research. So we must be patient and make our case over and over again.

Indeed, it is important not only to make the right arguments. But also to engage with the right decision makers at the right time.

There will always be those involved in the policy process that are more interested in making a career than improving the world. For them, it’s not of interest to look beyond the short term to see the benefits of investing in frontier research.

Instead we must engage with those decision makers who dedicate their careers to leaving the world a better place than they found it. Those who take a long-term view. Those who enter public service to do something and not just to be someone. And thankfully they exist, and some of them care about and understand the importance of fundamental research. 

But let us recognise that our leaders and decision makers have difficult choices to make. The problem for any government is that they face almost unlimited demands with limited resources.

And investing in research is not like investing in anything else. It is easy for citizens to see what you are getting if you build a new road or a hospital or raise pensions. But it is not so easy to see what you are getting if you invest in research.

That is why sometimes we can be tempted to phrase our proposals as if we were not asking for investment in basic research at all. Instead we might be tempted to argue that we need funding to cure cancer or address climate change or land somebody on Mars or create the next Google.

These things are all possible. And I understand this approach. But I do not think it is necessary to argue like this for the value of frontier research.

For a start, we should be wary of over-promising and under-delivering. In the long run this can actually undermine support for research.

In reality what we are getting when we invest in frontier research is an increased understanding of the world, whether it be the physical world, the living world or the social world.

So our biggest problem is that people find this hard to grasp. An increase in understanding? What is the value in that?

But there are compelling reasons why increasing our understanding of the world is one of the best investments we can make.

Firstly, if I build, for example, a new bridge, some people will benefit from it as it will shorten their travel time. But if I have a new idea or a deeper understanding, then everyone in the world can benefit.

Paul Romer received the Nobel Prize in 2018 [1] for analysing the economic consequences of this insight. What he realised is that physical and human capital are rival goods: if a particular machine, or a trained engineer, is used in one factory, the same machine or engineer cannot be used at the same time in another factory.

Ideas, on the other hand, are non-rival goods. One person or firm using an idea does not preclude others from using it too. And this, in a nutshell, is why investment in frontier research can reap huge benefits far beyond any other type of investment. It is like creating a bridge that can be used anywhere, at any time.

So, the fact that ideas can be used over and over again is amazing in itself, but the good news does not stop there. Because secondly, investing in new knowledge has another tremendous advantage: the possibility of combining each new understanding we acquire with all other knowledge we already have.

Paul Romer calls this “combinatorial explosion”. And this is what has driven the huge rise in living standards that we have seen over the last two centuries. Put simply, the more knowledge we acquire, the more useful combinations become possible. And this is why solutions can come from unexpected places. New findings in one area can open up new opportunities in different areas. Research advances on a broad front, an unpredictable front. Solutions can come from unexpected places. Putting all our resources into priority areas can therefore paradoxically lower our chances of achieving progress, even in those very areas. So the slow accumulation of knowledge delivers compounding results and does not depreciate as other “investments” do.

Thirdly, science has another amazing quality which makes it a great investment. The great thing about science is that we can perform a whole series of trial and error experiments and if we discover an improvement, we can retain it and discard the rest. “Critically we have the option, not the obligation to keep the result, which allows us to retain the upper bound and be unaffected by adverse outcomes”. Imagine again our bridge. It has to work. Otherwise the investment is completely wasted. This is not the case for investment in new knowledge. Here a “failure” can be a positive result.

But we have still not finished with the good news: the process of steadily accumulating knowledge in itself is the best way to train the highly skilled knowledge workers which our economies increasingly need.

The channels by which frontier research feeds into the economy (or makes an “impact”) are many and diverse. It is not just about the occasional breakthrough. Basic research increases the stock of useful knowledge, both the kind which is written down (e.g. scientific publications) and the kind that people carry around in their heads (e.g. skills, knowhow and experience). It trains skilled graduates and researchers in solving complex problems, produces new scientific instruments and methodologies, creates international peer networks for transmitting the latest knowledge and can even raise new questions about societal values and choices.

And you do not have to take my own word for this.

Countless studies have looked into the return on investment of funding frontier research and found that it is very high. When Mario Monti was asked to lead a high level expert group into the future EU budget he identified two areas that had the highest EU added value and these were research and security.

But this is nothing new.

For over 200 years economists have been studying the classical factors of production: land; labour; and capital. But, starting with Robert Solow (who won a Nobel Prize for this work), economists in the 1960s and 70s came to realise that at most, only half of the historical growth could be explained by the known factors. The rest could only be explained by positing a new factor of production: technological progress.

Nobody now disputes this claim. The issue is therefore how best to support technological progress. And here again there is a high level of consensus. Firstly, it is accepted that technological progress requires both frontier or curiosity-driven research and applied research. Secondly, it is accepted that governments need to fund frontier research. That is, because the applications of such research cannot be foreseen and there is possibly a long time-lag between fundamental discoveries and their exploitation. This means the private sector does not have the right incentives to fund it.

And again very few now dispute this form of “division of labour”. According to the OECD’s latest innovation strategy from 2015, “public investment in scientific research is widely recognised as an essential feature of effective national innovation systems. Public research plays a key role in innovation systems by providing new knowledge and pushing the knowledge frontier. Universities and public research institutions often undertake longer-term, higher-risk research and complement the activities of the private sector. Although the volume of public R&D is less than 30% of the total OECD R&D, universities and public research institutes perform more than three-quarters of total basic research.”

So next time you have to explain the importance of funding frontier research, maybe you should ask:

  • What other type of investment generates the same level of returns?
  • What other type of investment compounds in value and does not depreciate?
  • What other type of investment produces value even when it produces negative results?
  • What other type of investment trains the people we need for the knowledge economy and allows us to access knowledge discovered elsewhere? 

The European Research Council is based on this understanding. The ERC supports excellent scientists from anywhere in the world, of any age and from any field of research - including the social sciences and humanities. There are no predetermined targets or quotas. The ERC provides substantial, long-term funding of up to 3.5 million euros for up to five years. The only conditions are that ERC funded researchers must be based in Europe and willing to be adventurous and to take risks in their research.

The philosophy of the ERC rests on the idea that researchers know best the most promising research areas to explore. We do not ask our researchers to tell us what societal problem they are going to solve or what impact it will have. Our belief is that, without understanding there can be no real solution to problems.

So we are absolutely not saying we don’t care if the work that we fund has any impact. We are saying that giving freedom to researchers is the best way to get the most impact.

The ERC has just published its own analysis of all projects it funded under Horizon 2020 [2]. A series of fact sheets show the 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. Nobody told grantees to go in that direction.

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.

In his 1945 report to the President of the United States, Vannevar Bush called for an expansion of government support for science, and the creation of the National Science Foundation. Famously he stated: “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown. Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science.”

The fact is that by understanding the world we can change the world.

It is clear then that researchers must have the freedom to explore and understand the world as it is. That is why funding cannot be short-sighted. To maintain a healthy research system, it is right to invest in long-term curiosity-driven research. Some consider this approach to be idealistic. But I consider this approach to be pragmatic and necessary in order for science to have its maximum impact for the benefit of society. And while I am President of the ERC I will continue to make this argument for as long as it takes to be heard.c




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