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Meaning over money

What makes scientists tick? Diana Beech, a self-described “researcher researching research”, tells Catie Lichten on an article published on Research Europe about her project on uncovering “core values” and their influence on science funding.

You have been surveying researchers and policymakers about spiritual values—what is the goal of this project?

What I hope to achieve is a more sustainable European science policy that brings together the needs of the market, researchers and policymakers. I want to make sure funders keep in mind exactly why scientists do science so they don’t veer away from the essence of scientific endeavour. I think we can get a more efficient policy for the future if we manage to do this.

The word spiritual could be misleading—what sort of values are you looking for?

Some people instantly connect ‘spiritual’ with religion. We’re looking for a wider sense of values—motivations, drivers, inspirations, whether they are religious or not. One scientist I spoke to is doing cancer research because he or she was deeply moved by a personal experience with a family member suffering from the disease. That’s not necessarily a religious value, but it’s a deep personal calling. That’s what we’re looking for.

Your project refers to a new renaissance, mirroring an important report on the future of the Framework programme. What’s the renaissance?

That’s what Horizon 2020 is; its focus on competitiveness is a break with the past. But we’ve got to bring additional values in to make Horizon 2020 sustainable for the future. We hope that we can do this by putting an emphasis back on the core values inherent to European science. Some of the great historical scientific discoveries did not come as a result of trying to get us out of an economic crisis; they came out of curiosity.

This is a three-year project and you are halfway through—what have you found so far?

The first year I spent on surveys of grass-roots researchers, at the very bottom of Europe’s innovation chain, to see why scientists do science. One of the biggest results from that came when I asked scientists what value is most important to them in their work, and they said “creativity”. When I asked what value is least important, they said “competition”. That gets alarm bells ringing, because you look at any Horizon 2020 policy document and it’s all about competitiveness and competition, so maybe the rhetoric needs changing.

Aren’t these documents talking about the competitiveness of the EU, not individuals?

It’s true that there are different levels of competitiveness but if you look at the European Research Council, it’s got competition at its heart: pitting the best researchers against the best researchers. I know that’s a fair way of allocating funding, but it’s actually ostracising many scientists who don’t want to go in for this competition, who feel that that’s not what their research is about. It was quite an alarming result.

When it comes to Horizon 2020’s focus on the economy, isn’t that unavoidable in a time marked by recession and spending cuts?

Economics is always going to be a part of science funding, and part of the project’s aim is to make scientists aware of this. The problem lies with the way it’s being marketed—that economics is the only way to get Europe out of this crisis. But the biggest portion of researchers I surveyed said that they see themselves as having an obligation to create a better future—a more sustainable world. I think this fits in perfectly with the Horizon 2020 aims and the societal challenges.

Read more on Research Europe

By Catie Lichten

Research Europe


Tagged in: Funding Research science
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EuropeLogo eInfastructure This project has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 313203
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