Scientific research at times of crisis

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According to Patrick Cunningham, professor of animal genetics and scientific consultant for the Irish Government, research needs to be rethought by remodelling its priorities. In an article published on October, 24, on NatureCunningham underlines that we are fully in economic recession and states that the only way out is by  increasing, not diminishing, the investments in research and development. Especially public funding, which should reach at least 1% of the GDP. Research, in fact, promises immediate economic returns.

Patrick Cunningham also has the great merit of highlighting the centrality of the “scientific issue” not just on a cultural level, but also socially and economically. However, his analysis and his proposal need some clarifications. Firstly, we need to remember than only part of the world is in crisis and that a much smaller part of it (Europe) is in recession. The GDP of the planet, even after 2007, continued to grow, even though at a slower pace in respect to the previous years. It is not true that global investments in research and development are stable. They have increased, even after inflation: the world has never invested so much in scientific research and technological development as nowadays. There have never been so many researchers at global level as today: more than seven million.

In these times of crisis for Europe, part of the United States and Japan, other countries have ensured not just economic growth, but also increase in research investments and researchers (or human resources, if we want to use this ugly expression): above all eastern Asia (China, Korea, India and a constellation of a dozen more countries), but also emerging countries like Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Iran and Israel.

Taking there aspects into consideration, we can then agree with Patrick Cunningham: Europe is struggling to keep up. Despite all the commitments signed for in Lisbon (2002) and the recent confirmation of the Commission’s President, Barroso, the Union did not reach the goal it has been set: investing at least 3% of the GDP (1% from public funds and 2% from private investors) in research and development by 2010 in order to assert the Union as leader of the knowledge economy.

Up to date, research investments all over the 28 countries of the Union are below 2% of the GDP. And public funding does not exceed 0.7% on average. Patrick Cunningham states, correctly, that if Europe wants to try escaping the recession spiral, public investments must reach at least 1% of the GDP. Because it has been demonstrated (see The Entrepreneurial State, by Mariana Mazzucato, published by Anthem, 2013; but also The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It, by Marcia Angell, Random, 2004 – then director of New England Journal of Medicine) that the capability of producing new knowledge and great innovation depends mostly by public investments.

Actually, the research issue in Europe is much more articulated. We could briefly say that, besides the investment aspect (which is inferior, in relative terms, to US, Japan and many emerging countries), there are also a fragmentation and an education factors. These two problems – together with the issue discussed by Cunningham - were denounced at the presence of the European Commissary for Research, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, on the last 16th  November with a manifesto” by two Italian Euro Parliament members, Amalia Sartori – president of Industrial, Research and Energy Committee -  and Luigi Berlinguer, then-Ministry of Education, University and Research for the Italian Government at the end of the nineties.

Fragmentation is caused by the fact that only 7% of European expense in research is allocated on continental scale by the Commission, while 93% is decided by the 28 state members at a national level. The result is a politics of research not only disorganized, but often even divergent. For this reason, Amalia Sartori and Luigi Berlinguer demanded the realization, at last, of the old project developed by Antonio Ruberti: a communal area of research, that should encourage and facilitate communal infrastructures, communal careers, cooperation and organization. Indications that show the way for reducing fragmentation, but probably are not enough. In fact, State members should achieve the Barcelona’s objective: 3% of the GDP invested in research and development, a goal that should be imposed to every country, almost as Maastricht criteria, to be achieved in a short time. Besides, it should be necessary to increase the amount of investments allocated directly by Bruxelles, in order to benefit from a finally communal research politics.

Yes, but what politics? 

Patrick Cunningham asserts that we must foster research for an immediate economical return. True, Europe has more difficulties than other countries and/or group of countries in transforming knowledge from labs to assets and innovative services. However, we need to remember the fundamental concept of “Science, the endless frontier” - by Vannevar Bush - since 1945 the manifesto of modern politics of research: basic research (nowadays we would call it “curiosity-driven) is the driving force for new knowledge and innovation. An indication that Mariana Mazzucato and Marcia Angell showed to be valid now more than ever, but that appears to be alarmingly blurred in Horizon 2020, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation starting next year. Let us follow Vannevar Bush’s indications by ensuring that in Europe at least 20% of public investments in research and development are allocated to basic or curiosity-driven.

To conclude, Europe should take into consideration another factor: the youngsters’ education. At present, only 35% of young European aged between 25 and 34 has a university degree. In the OECD’s countries, the average is 40%, whilst it is 60% in Japan, Russia or Canada. Or, even, 64% in South Korea. Europe must rapidly regain this gap and ensure university education to many more youngsters if we want to play a protagonist role in the knowledge society and economy. This process must be even more rapid for countries, like Italy, where less than 20% of young people have a university degree. Therefore, besides the goals indicated by Patrick Cunningham and by Sartori and Berlinguer, it would be good to add another one: to reach a 50% rate of young graduates in Europe. The Union will overcome the crises if, besides the parameters of financial strictness, we will be able to respect the cognitive developmental parameters. Which are the first indicators of human development, as also stated by Patrick Cunningham.

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