The technological marvels you see are the tip of a pure research iceberg. How that research is paid for matters.

Nearly everything in our daily lives is built on a giant mass of scientific research, much of it born of pure curiosity or discovered by accident – what Jean-Pierre Bourgignon, recently head of the European Research Council (ERC), calls “curiosity-driven” and the ERC calls “frontier” research.  Pythagoras was fascinated by geometry, but he was probably not thinking of GPS. Olaus Roemer could not have imagined in 1676 the usefulness of knowing the precise speed of light. Each new discovery, each answer prompted more questions and opened up new areas of pure research. This process continues today, with a correspondingly vast field of questions to be answered – even if no-one can say what their eventual use might turn out to be.

But who should pay for pure, or fundamental, science that has no immediate, knowable use? This is of more than academic interest; it is what feeds the technological advances on which our way of life and its defence increasingly depend. Cut off or starve the pipeline of fundamental research and eventually the technological advances will dry up.

Europe has a stunning pedigree in pure research, until the twentieth century, much of it funded from the researchers’ own fortunes or those of wealthy patrons. Romantic, to be sure, but you wonder how much scientific talent was wasted for want of financial support. With the two world wars came the realisation that scientific research was an imperative for survival, not a luxury, “nice-to-have”; which prompted the establishment of state-funded research institutions, such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and the Max Planck Society in Munich, to support research independently of funding sources.

If science-as-survival-imperative were true 80 years ago, it is even more so now, as defence becomes more and more a question of technological superiority. Yet much pure research depends on a precarious mix of public and benevolent funds, and as budgets come under pressure, some governments are squeezing research funding to help make ends meet elsewhere. And its not just amounts that are being questioned; how they are allocated between research projects and teams is too.

Some administrators of scientific research organisations, including Antoine Petit (since January 2018 head of the CNRS), in his article in Le Monde on 18 December 2019, seek an overhaul of existing funding formulae to promote the most deserving projects through what he calls a “Darwinian”, approach whereby researchers compete for funds and only the best survive. This borrows from economic theory of competition, where the best products and services win out over less efficient competitors, an application beyond the sphere of economics that George Soros calls “market fundamentalism”.

Opposing this are many researchers, including Francois-Xavier Fauvelle, Chair of African History and Archaeology at the Collège de France, who, in his 23 December response to Monsieur Petit, published in Le Monde, point out that, as the value of pure research cannot be known within any reasonable time frame (an observation Monsieur Petit also makes), it is not possible to judge which is “best” or most deserving.

In fact both sides may be right (which is why Monsieur Petit seems to be on both). It depends on whether you are talking about applied research, which can result directly in a new product or process, or pure research, which does not.

The “Darwinian” principle can work well for applied research precisely because it can generate products and ideas, making it relatively easy to evaluate in the short term. Think of the famous Google search engine that made Larry Page and Sergey Brin household names. Unlike pure research, applied research often attracts funding from interested private firms and investors. For example, when drug companies undertake research, they often have a clear idea of what they are looking for and whether the competition is carrying out similar investigations. Their aim is quantifiable, so they know in advance how much investment it is worth.

If you have a robot vacuum cleaner, you may be aware that the robotics was developed by DARPA for the war in Afghanistan. But that in turn depended on centuries of basic research, none of which will ever be rewarded with a patent, and is in many ways the direct opposite of applied science. At the time it was carried out, nobody could have known how valuable or otherwise it would eventually turn out to be, and arguably we may never know its full value.

The ideas and insights that pure research generate necessarily remain in the public domain to be shared with other pure researchers, who add their own insights and refinements. They become, in effect, public goods, difficult or even impossible to attribute to an individual or team, beyond any explicit value and impossible to judge “better” or otherwise than other pure research conducted at the same time

As George Soros is keen to point out, applying economic principles beyond economics is of dubious validity, not only because they work only approximately in economics itself but also because, in economics, something that has no explicit price is assumed to have no intrinsic value. Research – and researchers – that fail to attract funding are supposed, by this questionable logic, to be inferior to those that win funding.

The best mathematicians and scientists are specialists in their fields. They are rarely also gifted business-people or entrepreneurs, and often not all that good at promoting themselves to others. Does that mean they are worthless? Clearly not.

Yet Monsieur Petit’s Darwinian approach demands some sort of up-front evaluation of a researcher’s work. How should this be carried out? It is unfair to expect administrators or specialists in unrelated fields objectively to evaluate work that is beyond their core skills. Doing so leaves them prone to making arbitrary choices or, worse, to the influence by those researchers they happen to have most contact with; which risks rewarding those most skilled in persuasion or self-promotion, not the best science. And those deserving researchers who feel they are not fairly rewarded will become discouraged and go somewhere else. Moreover, demands for frequent reports that seem to serve no scientific purpose can feel like a Sword of Damocles, further demoralising them. But how do you evaluate pure research?

In practice, most pure research is evaluated continuously and rigorously through the collaboration on which it thrives – the approach favoured by the ERC, which recognises that other researchers in the same or closely-related fields can be brutal critics, so any scientist that survives their scrutiny and wins their esteem is bound to be producing valid work. Only doctors are qualified to evaluate the work of other doctors; lawyers are judged by other lawyers, for instance.

Which highlights another critical difference between applied and pure research: unlike applied researchers, who compete with each other and keep their ideas to themselves for fear of divulging commercial secrets, pure researchers live on collaboration. Monsieur Petit himself notes that the fundamental research that underpins our current understanding of things like how our climate works, the amazing memory and computing capacity of our computers and telephones, deep-learning and artificial intelligence, is built on the research of previous generations of scientists, of whom he cites Lavoisier, Monge, Fourier, Pasteur and Curie, who collaborated and shared ideas freely. Had they competed, they would never have benefitted from the insights and refinements contributed by their contemporaries, and many of those ideas would have died with them. Set pure researchers against each other and you kill the science.

Few of today’s scientists have personal fortunes or rich patrons, so they need to be funded and rewarded for their efforts. If they are not, the best among them will look elsewhere for opportunities.

Monsieur Petit is, perhaps ironically, responding to calls to make French scientific research more “visible and attractive to the best scientists”. If he is aiming purely to attract applied scientists, his “Darwinian” approach may work – though not necessarily, if you agree with the ERC view that the distinction between pure and applied research has become blurred. Certainly in the realm of pure research, Monsieur Petit need not strive to establish a “centre of excellence”, but simply to promote what is already there: Europe in general and France in particular already have excellent pure researchers, such as Yves Meyer, who in the 1980s is responsible for a – completely unexpected – break-through discovery in the then-new theory of wavelet decompression that enabled the development of advanced data compression techniques that you now see as .jpeg, mp3 and mp4 technology, detection of gravitational waves and eventually image recognition.

Pure research needs to be nurtured in its own way, independent of commercial and proprietary interests, ideally in the company of other gifted researchers, who together form a critical mass of collaboration and ideas-sharing that attracts others. Applying the short-sighted, “Darwinian” route to pure research will surrender Europe’s long and noble reputation as the centre of enlightenment. That would not just be a tragedy in itself and for our prestige, but a wilful act of self-harm.

But that is not to say it can’t do even better. Monsieur Petit’s task is to attract the best scientists. What will make them want to come?

Like all of us, scientists like to feel they are valued, and one way to do that is to pay them respectably. That need not be excessive, as they also value working in the company of other talented and aspiring scientists in a supportive, rather than over-competitive environment.

That said, none of this can happen on a shoe-string budget. You may well ask why European taxpayers should fund what is to become in effect a public good, to be used beyond Europe. The answer is that a respectable funding pot will enable more, and more diverse, research to be carried out, creating a “critical mass” of the best researchers from around the world, which in turn makes more scientist want to come. We have seen how CERN has served as a magnet for top scientists from around the world, attracted to its open access and collaboration with other top scientists. Some of those newcomers will be applied scientists, who will generate technology that will further add to the European advantage. Europe is a big place, with well-educated and diverse people. Add to that its long and illustrious tradition of free-thinking and its quality of life, Europe is in a good position to offer this and more.

We are happy to support potential sporting prowess, even though most will never achieve the top ranks. Why then do we question support for our scientists, who have much more durable value to add and on whom the survival of current and future generations may ultimately depend?

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

    In conversation with – Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon of the European Research Council

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