The future of Europe is based on our capacity for creative thinking and taking risks


Honored with the Mainz Academy of Science and Literature’s Leibniz Medal, the Swedish Order of the North Star, and the Lower Saxony State Award.

At various international meetings you have said that many of the problems we are currently facing and will face in the future can't be solved without great breakthroughs in basic research.

We have great challenges to tackle and the future of Europe is based on our capacity for creative thinking, for opening up new paths and taking risks. Taking risks means embarking on new lines of research, being willing to challenge established wisdom. We need researchers willing to think outside the box, to work on truly new ideas and to find new ways to explore previously unknown terrain. There are a number of examples from the past demonstrating that these paradigm shifts in basic research have been what have led to innovations that we couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago. Think, for example, of lasers or the Internet. Both were created for very different applications that what we use them for today.

Are we at a decisive point to design and develop new strategies and research lines for the future?

Undoubtedly. The European Union has been losing ground in the field of basic research. 50 years ago, European scientists dominated the list of Nobel Laureates and other prestigious international awards. Nowadays, those who win Nobel prizes generally work in the United States. Europe is suffering from a lack of transnational support for basic and strategic research. European research is facing institutional reforms at all levels in order to keep up and stay competitive with the constant changes and thus become a knowledge-based economy. It is ever more desirable and, even, urgent to create strong pan-European funding structures that can create both a climate of cooperation to develop new ideas and an institutional environment to produce more cutting-edge results through increased competitiveness among the best researchers throughout Europe. We must have a broader viewpoint, and I realize that we won’t achieve this if we bank on national or European research in the regional sense of the word. Research is international by definition.

What traits would characterize science in the 21stcentury?

Internationalization, interdisciplinarity, innovation, facilities and information technology.

In these debate workshops, organized by B Debate and the Pasqual Maragall Foundation, we have discussed transformative research in the life sciences. How can this new approach speed up progress in this field?

First of all, we must identify the areas of basic science that open up new paths, that give us the opportunity to embark on new lines of research. Afterwards, we must foster communication among the scientists from different areas. Over the past decades it has been made clear that we can’t bring about improvements focusing only on our own area of research. Innovation comes at the interfaces of different disciplines.

Nowadays, most universities are closed environments and I think we need to open the doors and offer opportunities to integrate different viewpoints in order to resolve at least some of the greatest challenges facing us. This interconnection is already being developed at the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom and the Max Planck Society in Germany. They are working in groups of 20 experts. I think that is necessary in areas of research like high-energy physics, but in the life sciences the most effective teams are made up of only three to five young researchers supervised by established scientists. These work groups are sufficiently independent to be able to do their own research and also have many opportunities to interact. This is what I call an environment of consolidation, and this is the essence of the creative culture at these institutions.

Private bodies, public/private consortia… What funding model should we use for research if we want to grow?

The current funding model for research is exactly what it shouldn’t be. Right now we follow the rule “we want results now”, an approach that puts out all the sparks of creativity and stops it from becoming a strong focus of innovative, transformative scientific research.

I think that the most important research foundations in Europe like the Wellcome Trust and the Volkswagen Foundation, among others, must take advantage of the opportunity, as independent financial institutions, to take a risk on research projects in areas where public bureaucracy is still highly reticent to do so. I think we have the responsibility to open up these new opportunities in particular for young, postdoctoral researchers, but also for professors starting out their career, providing the facilities, technological equipment and the freedom to hire personnel to create their own research group and achieve a transdisciplinary view of the problem.

Giving money to researchers to carry out research that may or may not benefit society. How does this fit with the current global economic crisis?

Through 2009, the debate was alive in many European countries that “in times of crisis we mustn’t invest in this more transgressive type of science”, and some politicians said that “we must worry about creating jobs and not going after things without any short-term return”. Governments have focused on applied research, but the truth is that if we follow this type of politics the time will come when we have nothing left to apply.

It isn’t easy to convince politicians to support high-risk, high-return research because they want to win elections in two, three, four years… but in science, and in higher education as well, we must look further into the future. Many researchers currently receive funding for three-year projects, but from the time the research councils receive the proposal to the time a decision is made to fund it, almost a year goes by. Meanwhile, these researchers can't work on other projects because if they did so they would be criticized for not having done enough preparatory work or for not spending the money according to the agreed-upon plan.

It is key for funding bodies and foundations to change their format and work in five- to seven-year cycles, above all in the life sciences and biomedical research, in order to allow researchers to take risks and try new things. After this initial period, their work will be evaluated. And even if the result is a failure, it must be studied to see if this failure can help rule out some work directions and embark on others, to go beyond a specific line of research. In fact, this is commonly seen in Nobel Laureates. At the start, they began working in the wrong direction until, suddenly, they found a new path and got a positive result. Scientific research isn’t what the European Commission would like it to be: a business, a company like any other; it is something that must be considered and reconsidered at each step and, sometimes even reconfigured. Working with such tight deadlines just restricts the opportunity to work more creatively and bureaucratizes science.

Volkswagen Foundation was founded in 1962. What types of projects has it funded so far?

We cover all disciplines of science. Ten years ago we started a project on the adaptability of neuronal systems. We have made important steps forward and some of the young researchers we fund now work at various Max Planck Institutes, the Wellcome Trust or are professors at important German universities. Another more recent example is that we have joined forces with researchers in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands to work on the placebo effect. This fact continues to be a miracle: how can a sugar pill have the same effect on some people as a drug? We see ourselves as empowering this type of international collaborations with the hope of obtaining new points of view that can explain the mechanism of the process and optimize this effect and the use of drugs in general.

How do you think these debate workshops organized by B·Debate help build the knowledge society of the future?

They give us a marvelous opportunity to learn from each other, to see how in one way or another we are all fighting to create these new opportunities and change aspects of science that don’t totally work, for example the peer review system. Because everyone is aware that the best researchers are under enormous pressure; everyone wants them as advisors in the huge number of review processes. We must find a solution to this overload and give the best and brightest the opportunity to devote themselves to their science. One way would be to design a work plan in two or three stages. First, a panel of experts would pre-select the most promising proposals, then invite researchers to complete these projects and, finally, present them to the experts. This way, it would be easy to see who is really committed to transformative research, who is seeking out an integrative approach to the problem. But, once again, that takes time. There is no one valid solution for all cases, but it’s worth experimenting, and these conferences are a great opportunity to learn how to do this.