Bulgaria in the cold as European Union freezes its innovation funding

First published in Nature, 1 February 2018

European Union science ministers are due to meet on 2 February in their bloc’s poorest member state — Bulgaria — to discuss future EU research policy. For the host nation, it was supposed to be a chance to showcase its ambitious plans to boost economic growth by attracting international research institutes to the country.

But the timing of the event is awkward, to say the least. In July, Bulgaria had been due to receive €150 million (US$186 million) from the European Union to build facilities for research and innovation, under a programme that aims to boost economic growth in poor regions. The programme, which was expected to give Bulgaria €700 million between 2014 and 2020, is designed to help with the costs of research infrastructure.

However, the EU authorities withheld the money after Bulgaria failed to identify enough sufficiently qualified scientists to evaluate the proposals. The authorities had demanded experts with three or more publications with at least five citations in the top journals in their subjects. Then in November, the Bulgarian government cut its 2018 science and higher-education budget by around 25%, a move it had planned in anticipation of the windfall.

The decision has frustrated scientists in Bulgaria, because they had wanted to use the new infrastructure to forge links with researchers outside the country. “Now, we cannot prepare proposals because we are not going to have the infrastructure,” says Ana Proykova, a physicist at Sofia University and an adviser on European research infrastructure to Bulgaria’s government. She says that the government should reinstate the funds it cut from the 2018 science budget. “We are still fighting very strongly for the funding procedure to be re-opened, even if it is in the middle of this year. Otherwise, our budget is going to be very tiny.”

To continue reading this piece, please visit https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01374-x

UK scientists welcome changes to controversial research reforms

First published in Nature, 28.02.2017

UK scientists who had vigorously protested against a planned shake-up of the way their country’s research is funded say they’re largely reassured after the government announced amendments to the plans.

Science minister Jo Johnson announced a package of changes last week that look likely to smooth the way for the reforms to become law — although not everyone is satisfied.

The proposed reforms would bring the country’s separate research councils together under a single, central funder, called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), and would create a government body to regulate what UK universities teach. The latest changes are designed to soothe fears of excessive government control over what gets funded and taught in British universities, policy experts say.


Most unusually, Johnson has suggested writing into law a long-held principle in UK science funding, termed the Haldane principle — that research-funding decisions should be protected from political interference. “Decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (e.g. a peer review process),” the revised law notes.

“We applaud the government’s intention to recognize that those best able to decide what should be funded are not always politicians,” says Naomi Weir, deputy director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. “It is such a difficult thing to put in legislation, and it’s good that the government is trying to do that.”

Among other amendments, the changes include promises to maintain the autonomy of universities and, according to government documents, “specify the freedoms of academic staff to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”.

The changes show that the government has listened to scientists before “tinkering further” with the UK research-funding system, says James Wilsdon, who studies research policy at the University of Sheffield, UK, and who also chairs a lobby group, Campaign for Social Science. “This is a serious and substantial package of amendments that should go a long way to assuaging any lingering concerns,” he adds.

Point of principle

Many policy experts note that the government has not been quick to make amendments to its proposals. Criticisms were first heard in October 2016. The draft legislation passed easily through the country’s lower chamber of Parliament, the House of Commons, but has encountered fiercer resistance this year in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, many members of which have a science or education background.

“I am pleased with the amendments,” says John Krebs, a member of the House of Lords and a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who last year had warned against adopting the reforms. He says that incorporating the Haldane principle is “a significant and welcome concession”, and that he is reassured by other amendments designed to protect the research councils’ autonomy and to make sure that the allocation of research funding to the various councils remains transparent.

But another House of Lords scientist, Martin Rees — an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, who has criticized the idea of creating UKRI — says he still worries that the new body will have too much power over what gets funded.

The law will see its next hearing in the House of Lords on 6 March — and further changes might be suggested at that stage. After that, any changes have to be agreed again by the House of Commons. But the mood among UK universities is that the reforms will now go through, says Andy Westwood, director of the University Observatory in Wolverhampton, UK, a policy think tank.

Ironically, says Westwood, the writing into law of the Haldane principle could end up serving the government more than it does researchers, because it hammers out an agreed meaning for what has until now been a vague principle of independence that could be called upon whenever researchers felt threatened by government interference.

“Haldane was probably more powerful when it was not enshrined, because academics could always shape it to fit their argument,” Westwood says.

An alternative future

Research Europe, 12.01.17

Dietmar Lampert, from Austria’s Centre for Social Innovation, hopes that digital science will create a better fit between innovation and society, Inga Vesper reports.

At November’s Web Summit in Lisbon, one innovator took to the stage to demonstrate his face-recognition glasses. “I’m scanning and filing every face in this room,” he told the audience of 15,000. Half of the crowd cheered with excitement. The other half quietly covered up their faces.

It is scenarios such as this that pose crucial questions about whether people are ready to handle the full capabilities of the latest technological inventions. And it is these questions that Dietmar Lampert from the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna is trying to answer. He wants to understand the effects digital technologies have on society, and propose ways to better prepare people for the latest inventions.

Lampert, who researches digital policy and alternative metrics, sees the issues that have arisen as a result of global digitisation as a two-headed beast.

On the one hand, neither citizens nor policymakers grasp the full extent of the phenomenon because of its intangible nature. “You would never plaster your personal information all over your car for all to see, but in the virtual world people stop being careful because it is harder to connect emotionally,” he says. Law-makers controlling the reach and impact of digital technologies continue to lag behind the technology itself as they remain unaware of how far digital and data-gathering technologies have sneaked into everyday lives, Lampert says.

The digitisation of science offers new opportunities to tackle the problems raised, through the emergence of both open and citizen science. And Lampert says he believes that these hold great scope for a big transition in the future, as combining openness of experiments and results with the involvement of citizens could prepare society better for technological change.

Scientists finally have the means to share data and results widely and immediately, rather than relying on conventional publishing—a necessity when paper documents were the only means of storing and distributing information. Open science means opening the research process up from the start to other partners, including the public and companies, to create innovation and do research that addresses society’s concerns. For researchers, the challenge is to “decide how much, and where, openness makes sense”, he says.

Sharing data will improve the quality of science due to better reproducibility and wider peer review, he claims. “Openness makes sense in science because transparency will give you instant validation and impact.”

Lampert also believes that this will help, ultimately, to shift the research process away from isolated teams working in the confines of a single laboratory, towards close involvement of citizens, policymakers and other scientists. “As researchers, we are still precious about our knowledge. We’ve never been able to break the paradigm,” he says. ”Innovation comes from different ways of looking at something, from not accepting the paradigm.

“Europe has a lot of diversity. Its people can bring something extra to science, and that creates new chances for innovation.”

Traditionally, innovators have been lauded for growing their ideas into large companies, but there has been little requirement for them to think about the social and security implications of inventions. Now, when hundreds of people are involved, scientists need to take charge of ensuring that scientific quality is upheld: for example by providing training in gathering quality data in comparable, shareable formats and thinking about the personal rights of those generating the data, Lampert says.

A truly open and citizen-led movement won’t work for all fields of science, he cautions, especially those involving sensitive data or competitive product development. He says that researchers as well as citizens will have to learn what works and does not work in the open-science process and think of alternative measurements for results.

“For example, scientists would need to change their language, so they don’t solely communicate in jargon,” he says. “It is also a question of who gets the credit. Will the citizens who provided their computing power or pattern-recognition skills be named in the paper? Will scientists be able to move away from counting citations and towards including social impact on their CV?”

He also pleads with policymakers to catch up, as bodies such as the European Commission continue to propose legislation not fit for purpose. Referring to a revision of copyright legislation that aims to protect European inventions, Lampert says that it will clamp down on data sharing and public hosting—totally failing to acknowledge the open-information movement.

“If you own something physical, you’d have a real loss of value if someone took it away,” Lampert says. “But in the world of ideas that’s not always the case. Sharing an idea is what gives it value in the first place.”