To not invest in basic research, that represents stealing from the coming generations, says Liselotte Højgaard, Professor of Medicine and Technology at the University of Copenhagen.

A long-term approach leads to creative basic research

Svenska 2019-12-04

“Undirected basic research is society’s investment in addressing future unknowns.” So says Lars Kloo, professor of applied physical chemistry. Curie has talked to three researchers about why basic researchers need more time and freedom.

Basic research opens doors to new fields of knowledge, and offers future opportunities that we cannot even imagine now.

“Our society is the result of brilliant basic research. For example, research into electricity and quantum mechanics done just over a century ago has had enormous impact on how we live today,” says Liselotte Højgaard.

She is Professor of Medicine and Technology at the University of Copenhagen. She is also a member of the board of the research funding body Novo Nordisk Foundation, and head of clinic at the Rigshospitalet hospital in Copenhagen. At the hospital, she experiences at close range what current basic research can mean for individual persons.

“Basic research into immune therapy for cancer, which was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2018, has led to a revolution in cancer care. We can now cure patients with skin cancer and breast cancer who would have died just a few years ago. Thanks to the work of the researchers Allison and Honjo, we can save lives.”

Creating justice between generations

At global level, there are many challenges where basic research can be of crucial importance.

“Our situation is problematic to say the least, and we need things like clean water, clean energy and changes in behaviour. Basic research won’t be the whole solution, but it plays an important part. It can provide answers to questions we didn’t think of asking.”

She thinks that we have a responsibility to create justice between generations, in several ways. The next generation of researchers must have a good knowledge foundation to start from, so that are also able to launch innovations.

“To only research things that are close to application and not invest in basic research, that represents stealing from the coming generations.”

Tempting to direct researchers

Lars Kloo is Professor of Applied Physical Chemistry at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Secretary General of the Scientific Council for Natural and Engineering Sciences at the Swedish Research Council, and chairs the board of NordForsk. He emphasises how important it is for basic research to be undirected, and not steered.

“It is very easy to get stuck on the challenges we have today, but in ten years, we might have new challenges that are even more urgent. You can look at undirected basic research as society’s investment in addressing future unknowns. You invest money in creative persons, who drive the research frontier forwards,” says Lars Kloo.

But letting researchers choose their own subjects does require funding bodies to have cool heads.

“All the major technical advances are the result of basic research, but not all basic research produces results. So it is a bit of a gamble on the part of the funding bodies.”

Locks in creativity

He understands why politicians like to indicate what researchers should focus on.

“Politicians are elected to manage problems, and to be forward-looking, and you have to respect that. They want to achieve something, such as fulfilling the Agenda 2030 goals, and then it must be very tempting to decide on a particular direction for research.”

But Lars Kloo warns that focused initiatives to solve a particular problem locks in the creativity of researchers, and limits where they can search for new knowledge.

“States that have directed research firmly, such as totalitarian dictatorships in the extreme case, have never been prominent in terms of innovation and high-quality research.”

Need trust and time

Lars Kloo would like decision-makers to give more leeway to researchers themselves, to direct them less and trust them more.

“There is no ‘Professor Balthazar’, sitting in his remote ivory tower and carrying out really weird research. Researchers are ordinary persons, who live in society and see the same problems as everyone else. Many feel a very great need to focus their research on things that are relevant to the major societal challenges. And researchers know better than politicians where the knowledge frontier is at the moment.”

In addition to freedom, he would also like to see more researchers receive long-term funding.

“There is a myth that hardship leads to creativity, but this is not so. Research shows that security and a long-term approach provide the conditions for creativity. Having a secure foundation, and knowing you can head off into the unknown without running out of money.”

Invest in individuals with ideas

Lars Kloo’s views are backed up by Gunnar Öquist, Professor Emeritus of Plant Physiology at Umeå University, and a former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy of Sciences. Öquist divides up basic research into two categories – one that formulates questions within the framework for today’s conceptual thinking, and another that challenges the usual models and breaks entirely new ground.

“The first type is dominant today, as it is very productive and takes relatively little time. The second type has difficulty competing, as it is riskier and needs a long period with stable funding,” says Gunnar Öquist.

Switching from funding projects to funding key persons is another way of promoting trail-blazing research.

“Research shows that breakthroughs happen more often if you invest in talented individuals with ideas, rather than make the corresponding investment via project funding.”

Trust and a long-term approach

Good research systems mix researchers with complementary skills, and give the key persons long-term basic funding, in the view of Gunnar Öquist.

“This is then added to with grants for projects. Freedom, trust and a long-term approach should be the guiding principles for funding.”

Gunnar Öquist previously chaired the Advisory Board of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, which suggested that the foundation should focus more on long-term basic funding for talented persons. This has since been implemented.

“Today, the Wallenberg Foundation plays a major role in the renewal of Swedish research.”

By providing internationally useful terms and conditions, it helps universities and others to recruit very good junior researchers.

“The researchers are given a salary and adequate subject-adapted basic funding to conduct research on a long-term basis. The basic funding can then be supplemented with project grants as necessary,” says Gunnar Öquist, who wishes that every junior researcher could receive such funding that he or she could show their full potential.

Forming creative environments

The academic management is also of great importance when it comes to promoting undirected and innovative basic research.

“The universities must have an open recruitment policy, aimed at forming creative environments, where people’s competences and qualities complement each other. In such environments, the conditions for scientific breakthroughs are enhanced,” says Gunnar Öquist.

The opportunities for basic research are dependent on how both external funding bodies and the universities act. Gunnar Öquist would like to see in-depth and advanced analysis of the roles of both parties, and how best they can complement each other.

“The aim must be to clarify the complementary roles of the external funding bodies and the universities. This analysis can then be used as a basis for enhancing the quality of our Swedish research system as a whole.”

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Text: Eva Annell

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