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Research policy in the USA and in Europe

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The cover of Time, which at the end of last year was dedicated to Fabiola Gianotti, is certainly recognition of introductory science, or as it is known today, curiosity-driven science. Research which serves no immediate objective other than to satisfy interest and increase knowledge of natural phenomenons. The exact type of research carried out at CERN in Geneva, where Fabiola Gianotti oversees an important experiment at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator. It is, incidentally, the most important machine created by man with such diverse functions, making it a prototype for various prominent technologies. These technologies, sooner or later, are incorporated into our daily lives. Just as was the case with the World Wide Web, introduced twenty years ago at CERN to facilitate internal communication between the high energy physics community and which, in summary, became the system that governs the entire global computer network (it represents a substantial part of the global economy). Introductory science, therefore, motivates and produces technological innovation.

The driving force of innovation

Over the past few weeks, the President of the United States, Barack H. Obama, reminded of how his country invested 3.8 billion dollars in the “genome project”: the sequencing, stage by stage, of the DNA of humans and of other species. A research program designed and implemented thanks to the initiative of Renato Dulbecco. It is true that the results of the biology project on the American economy were unpredictable in advance but, according to the Head of US Administration, presently amount to 800 billion dollars. Every cent invested in the “genome project” generated 210.
Therefore, it is doubtless that introductory, or curiosity-driven, research not only has an intrinsic value (inestimable), but also a visible economic one. To use a rough metaphor, we could say that introductory research represents the driving force behind innovation and an economy based upon knowledge which presently represents a large portion (probably over 50%) of the overall global economy. The economic value of introductory research is, as we have already stated, unpredictable in advance. However it is subsequently, quantifiable. This assessment is not always completed. Not in systematic fashion anyhow. For this very reason, Obama established a commission of experts to respond to the question: what are the precise results of investment in introductory research on the American and global economy?

Europe possesses similar knowledge of the role of scientific research. The creation and development of the European Research Council represents a clear example.
All the same, on both sides of the Atlantic, the voices of criticism are growing louder – some of which, alarming – on the (true or presumed) pragmatic direction that research policy is taking (seen to be taking) both in Washington and Brussels. Standing accused are, respectively, the focus of the United States on projects such as “translational medicine” or “brain mapping” and in Europe with Horizon 2020, the framework program which guides and finances the Union's research and innovation from 2014 to 2020.

The budget proposal for investment in scientific research for 2014 that Barack Obama, over the last few weeks, put forward to Congress, reflects this direction. Not purely owing to the fact that the 143 billion dollars proposed by the White House for 2014 represents a meager 1% increase when compared to 2012, but primarily because, according to the publication Nature, it is representative of an attitude emerging within Federal Administration: "science needs to serve a purpose, specifically, it needs to create employment and cure illnesses".
An opinion increasingly perceived amongst the American public. In times of crisis, the public wishes to see the immediate and visible results of financial investments. This attitude has found an unusual means of expression within the United States Congress, where many deputes and senators, not just republicans, keep asking, most curtly, questions of the following kind: "We give 30 billion dollars every year to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Where is the care? Where are the treatments?"

Pragmatic direction?

All the same, a pragmatic spirit seems to linger in Congress – the desire for research which produces immediate results – different from that which, beginning with the project of Vannevar Bush in 1945, fueled the United States research policy: focus should be placed on introductory research which does not have predictable, immediate results, because without this driving motor, the entire innovation system comes to a halt.

This pragmatic spirit comes into force, and has found its way into the Obama Administration, which does not hold a majority in Congress. In actual fact, within the President's budget proposal, the greatest spending increase goes to the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (666 billion dollars, + 16% when compared to 2012), an initiative which represents the most immediate application within the field of biomedical research. A share of this money, 40 billion, will go to the Cures Acceleration Network, which proposes the development of the most widely needed treatments and those that private companies are unable to bring to fruition.
However, the pragmatist approach, according to many critics, does not just concern medicine. Even with the “brain mapping” project, which is part of fundamental research, lots of stress is placed on immediate results in terms of the treatment of cerebral illnesses. What is more, many highlight the fact that Obama proposes a billion dollar investment to the National Institute of Standards and Technology of Gaithersburg, in Maryland, to enable the development of 3D (three dimensional) printing, which is considered an emerging technology.   

In these examples and in many more, many people glimpse a kind of betrayal of the wise American tradition, which, as identified by Vannevar Bush, sees a distinct separation between public investment aimed exclusively at scientific research and technological development, the exclusive competence of companies. Critics say that the government has begun completing the work of private industries.

The European situation: Horizon 2020

Things are not too different in Europe. In Brussels, they are still working on the Horizon 2020 program, which will finance scientific research and technological innovation for seven years, beginning in 2014. Discussions are being held on the amount of spending: the Commission would like a total of 80 billion euros, some governments do not wish to provide more than 60. However, discussions are also being held, mainly on quality. Who will receive this money and to serve what purposes?

Critics in this case also identify a certain pragmatist driving force. For the first time, the investments of the Union in research and innovation have been amassed. And, as told by the report in Horizon 2020 Italy, published a few weeks ago by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, "With Horizon 2020, we see, for the very first time, a single framework with all the EU investments in research and innovation. The Program provides specific focus on discussions on new knowledge of products, processes and innovative services, which, at the same time, offer opportunities for the production system and contribute to improving the lives of citizens".
Translated into monetary terms: out of 80 billion in total, 25 go to Excellent Science, frontier research, with an increase of resources for the European Research Council; 18 billion go to Industrial Leadership, for company technology development projects; and, finally, the largest part, 32 billion, goes to Societal Challenges, hence the attempt to respond to the greatest global challenges that Europe and the world have to face.

The distribution of funds and the program "philosophy", according to many critics, make Horizon 2020 a base not really for a “European research area” of which Antonio Ruberti spoke, but for a “Union of innovation”, the objective of which being to strengthen the competitiveness of the European System.

In this way, Europe too would be giving in to the temptress of pragmatism.

In reality, we must consider that investment from Brussels barely represents 5% of European spending on research and development. In addition, historically, it has been provided to applied research and technological developments more than to introductory research. 95% of the investments from European countries are decided and managed at national level. The States of the Old Country have always been hesitant to surrender this supremacy in light of fundamental research.
The theme of "neo-pragmatism" in Europe necessitates a more structured analysis. In essence, it deserves greater public discussion. If this is true, if it is a sign of a deep-rooted trend, an alarm should be raised. If everybody were to concentrate on the bodywork and ignore the motor, the machine of science and innovation risks coming to a halt.

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