High-risk research takes off in Europe, finds survey
A considerable number of national research agencies in Europe are taking the leap of faith and funding high-risk, highly innovative research, according to the findings of an EU-funded survey.
The 'High Innovation/Gain/Expectation Program' (HInGE) survey identified a total of 40 European funding agencies that claimed to have specific programmes supporting novel or 'risky' research projects. 'This figure is far more than we expected to see when we started the exercise,' said Patrick Prendergast of Trinity College Dublin, who conducted the survey.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of these agencies are located in Western Europe. This can be explained by a wider availability of grant funding and the healthy state of science policy in these countries compared to those countries in Eastern Europe, suggests Professor Prendergast.
The survey is one of several activities carried out by the NEST-PROMISE (NEST-Promoting Research on Optimal Methodology and Impacts) project, which was funded under the New and Emerging Science and Technologies (NEST) section of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The aim of NEST-PROMISE is to promote high-risk, multidisciplinary research throughout Europe. The survey provides the first pan-European map of where and which organisations are funding high-risk research.
'Before it wound down, the NEST programme funded high-risk research, but it wasn't clear to us that national governments were doing that as well. But it seems that in many cases they are, albeit at a much smaller scale,' said Professor Prendergast. Agencies are providing funding of anything between €1 million to €10 million annually.
'The funding bodies are not putting all their eggs in high-risk research, but they are prepared to put some in,' said Professor Prendergast. 'This area of research is still a fringe activity, the core importance for these organisations is to fund 'normal science' rather than fund individuals to either break out of their area where they have a track record or into something new that hasn't been studied before,' he told CORDIS News.
Small in scale perhaps, but many of these programmes are making big leaps of faith into unchartered waters. In their mission statements, many of the programmes speak of their goal to move away from 'safe science'. The Blanc programme, funded by the French National Agency for Research, aims 'to increase ambitious projects [...] which present original objectives and rupture well-marked out routes of research'. Meanwhile, the Explora - Ingenio 2010, a Spanish Ministry of Education programme, provides 'funding for research that has a very high chance of not being successful, but with a very high potential impact'.
To depart from 'safe science' means rejecting traditional forms of project selection criteria, such as a researcher's track record, and processes such as peer review. 'Panel-based peer reviews tend to be conservative; tend not to want to take a risk on a new proposal. Instead they rather fund 'safe science', emphasising the importance of a track record. By the nature of peer review and track record, you are fitting into already existing norms of the discipline,' Professor Prendergast told CORDIS News.
Although some of the agencies are choosing to try out new ways of selecting projects, the majority still place a strong emphasis on the track record of the researcher, which Professor Prendergast believes is ill-judged. 'Oftentimes the people who want to do highly speculative research might not be the ones that have a long track record in terms of published research.'
An example of an innovative programme is the 'Ideas Factory' of the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The programme is open to all disciplines on 'focused topics that need a new dimension in thinking - not just the overlap between disciplines'. Recent calls include 'Gun crime: taking the heat off the streets' and 'Chemical craftwork: new ways of making molecules and materials'.
Probably the most groundbreaking aspect of the programme is its project selection and review process. For each topic, an intense interactive five-day workshop called a 'sandpit' is held. A total of 20 to 30 researchers are selected to take part (following a call for participants), as well as a group of stakeholders and international experts, who act as impartial referees in the process. Outcomes of sandpits range from a single large research project to several smaller projects, feasibility studies, networking activities and overseas visits. The outcomes are not pre-determined but are defined during the sandpit. The track record of the proposer is not important when selecting projects for funding.
'I think it is incumbent on these high-risk programmes to have innovative peer review processes. We can see here that it is really trying to break the boundaries on how research is reviewed and assessed and chosen for solutions,' Professor Prendergast pointed out. 'These types of programmes go beyond best practices; they are not just happy to hide behind the phrase 'best practice', they are actually trying to get out there and try something new and innovate.'
Although there are no plans to repeat the mapping exercise, Professor Prendergast believes that a follow-up would be helpful in drawing further conclusions about the public funding of risky research in Europe.
The survey findings and final report of the NEST-PROMISE project will be published in the autumn.
For more information, please visit:
Data Source Provider: CORDIS News attendance at NEST-PROMISE workshop
Document Reference: Based on CORDIS News attendance at a NEST-PROMISE workshop
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Scientific Research