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Europe needs blue sky research more than ever

29 May 2020

Dag Rune Olsen, Rector of the University of Bergen, Norway

We are approaching the summer months with more time for leisure and family, but we will face a different summer than the ones we are used to. Many of us are still managing the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and it might be a long time before life on all our campuses returns to where it was before.

We also see that Europe itself faces a crisis. Are we a still the Union we thought we were or are we just national states fighting on our own, defending ourselves?

I am very happy to say that we can steer against this through our European University alliance Arqus, which is working towards the shared goals of educating the European citizens of the future. It gives me comfort to know that many of my good Coimbra Group colleagues are also involved in Arqus activities.

I also see that our scientists are currently more valued than ever: many of them serve as experts and political advisers to the EU, the national governments and our municipalities. I hope we can keep this trust and expand it. We are all aware that the scientific progress we can capitalize on now has not come on its own. It needs investment in basic research, in groundbreaking ideas, in research driven solely by our curiosity to understand the world around us better. This is the best insurance against future disasters like the current pandemic.

Norway received positive news concerning the nurture and protection of this type of research: This week the Research Council of Norway published the evaluation, by an independent group of experts, of our centre of excellence (SFF) scheme. This scheme funds outstanding groups to work on groundbreaking, often, interdisciplinary research on bottom-up themes, for ten years. The report concluded: “The scientific quality of research at the SFF centres has been excellent. The funding and establishment of the centres of excellence has changed the mindset of researchers, introduced the concept of excellence and allowed the best researchers to come together to design and conduct groundbreaking research and projects. They have sustained long-term results for society. The centres have produced more than 25% of Norway’s top 10 cited articles and the centres have produced more than 30% of the top 1% of cited papers in Norway.”

Norway is an active part of the European Research Area (ERA) consisting of the EU Member States and Associated Countries with outstanding scientists who need funding to bring their research ideas to life. As far as we can see now, the developments in the European Union budget could point towards a decreased pot for the European Research Council (ERC), the flagship of independent research in Europe, and around the world.

Time and time again, history has shown that groundbreaking frontier research is the prerequisite for groundbreaking innovation. The ERC has been the hallmark of pushing our frontiers of knowledge within all fields of science, thus laying the ground for countless of groundbreaking innovation. The key here, is that we don’t know what new knowledge we need and even less, how this knowledge will be applied. But we know, again from history, that bottom-up, curiosity driven and groundbreaking research is what gives us the necessary knowledge for understanding the world around us and laying the foundation for making new products and services.

I have therefore joined forces with many of my Scandinavian rector colleagues and Nobel Prize laureates to create the “Friends of the ERC” initiative to safeguard the ERC budget in the next framework program, Horizon Europe. I know that the whole Coimbra Group and currently more than 6 500 other institutions and individuals stand beside us in supporting this cause. All of this helps me to look at the approaching unusual summer months with a feeling of contentment – we are all together, even though we cannot meet in person right now.