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‘Bottom up’ or ‘top down’: Parsing the EU research debate (Science|Business)

2011-10-13

Who decides what researchers should study with EU funding? An odd policy debate highlights a key issue in the EU's €82 billion plan

Article written by Richard L. Hudson, Science|Business

A philosopher of language would have a great time in Brussels. Here, words take on all kinds of coded references and veiled imperatives. A good example in the little world of research and innovation policy is "bottom up" and its opposite, "top down." It sounds silly, but behind these banal terms lies a political dispute that will help decide how the EU spends its proposed €82 billion research budget from 2014 to 2020.

At a briefing organised in Brussels by the Swiss government earlier this week (October 11), Dieter Imboden, president of the National Research Council, observed, "We see an increasing tendency both on the national and the EU level that research funding is directed top-down and within thematic programmes." That is, his context suggested, bad - and the term conjured up images of a bunch of politicians dictating what scientists should study. By contrast, he said, in the early phase of scientific research the choice of topics should be "bottom up" - decided by the researchers themselves.

He elaborated with the homely simile of a bee hive. An individual scientist, he said, is like the bees that go prospecting outside the hive for good flower patches. They are not well organised; they explore, seemingly at random. But when they find a good field, they return to the hive and a "top-down" organisation starts to emerge - with each worker taking a specific task in the harvest and processing.  Einstein was a lone bee. The Apollo space programme was a top-down project. His point was that you need both approaches in research - but that the balance today is not right.

In EU programmes, Imboden said, "To a certain extent there is still too much top-down" management. An emphasis on Grand Challenges - steering research money to climate change, healthcare, energy supply and the like - is partly responsible. So too is the current economic climate, with politicians wanting a direct return from research - for every Swiss franc or euro spent, to get two back in one or two years. "It's not the way science works," said Imboden.

In case anyone missed the point, a Swiss complexity researcher, Dirk Helbing of ETH-Zurich, elaborated. Increasingly, he said, science is a complex system - with parts of the system strongly coupled and interdependent, exhibiting faster dynamics, and less predictability. No longer, he said, is science performed in a series of ivory-tower universities; it is all inter-linked, in a complex network that cannot be easily controlled.  "Science cannot be driven like a bus," he said.

A visitor from Mars at the session would have been forgiven for being confused - especially upon noting the number of senior Eurocrats in attendance. Surely they weren't really there to hear about bees or complexity? For the sake of the Martian, here are a few politically relevant facts that were never spoken at the meeting:

  • Imboden, as president of the European association of national research administrators, has been spearheading their drive to have a stronger voice in Brussels over how EU research money gets spent. It includes the opening of a pilot lobbying office in Brussels, under the name of Science Europe. Among many of the national research administrators, a major concern has been the Commission's effort over the past few years to force more coordination of research grants across the EU, under so-called "joint programming".
  • The Swiss are not EU members, but their influence in EU research policy is large because of the money they contribute to the EU funding pot, their success at winning grants back from it, and the political importance they attach to it as a nation. (Norway, with its oil and gas wealth, is another example of a non-EU member that punches above its weight in EU research policy).
  • Brussels is in the middle of one of its periodic moments of acute personality disorder - questioning its raison d'être, rewriting all its EU research and innovation policies, and studying a proposed 46 per cent increase in funding (at a time of extreme fiscal austerity in Europe). This would make Brussels far and away the most influential force in European research - for the better, if you believe EU-wide policy coordination is needed; for the worse, if you think the individual nations and researchers know best what to study.

Of course, there's no resolution yet to this argument over the scope and management of EU research policy. The next big step will come on November 30, when the Commission is due to unveil its formal legislative proposal for the research and innovation budget for 2014 to 2020; and many in Brussels are betting it will not be settled until well into 2014.There are other issues to be resolved as well. Should research money be focused on the best universities ("excellence" in Brussels code), or should it be spread across the EU to improve R&D capacity everywhere ("stairway to excellence")?  How much should be steered to basic research ("ideas" or "research"), and how much to technology development ("innovation")? And so on.

So this odd "bottom up" and "top down" dialectic is just a clue to one of the many policy disputes to play out here over the next few years - but there is already some notion of political compromise. At the Swiss briefing, Maria da Graca Carvalho, a Portuguese member of the European Parliament who generally contradicted some of Imboden's points, proposed a solution: What's needed, she said, is a mix of both top down and bottom up thinking in all EU research programmes.