Research involves imagining the future and wrestling with the issues that it throws up

The chair of the ALLEA Working Group Framework  Programme 9 and lead author of ALLEA’s position paper “Developing a Vision for Framework Programme 9”, Professor John Bell, reflects on the EU’s future research and innovation programme after Horizon 2020 and elaborates on ALLEA’s recommendations on the topic. Professor Bell (Fellow of the British Academy) is a comparative lawyer who specialises in French and German law, jurisprudence (especially legal reasoning), public law and European law. He is currently Professor of Law at the University of Cambridge and has previously worked at the Universities of Oxford and Leed

Which is the most important aspect that policy-makers should consider in the development of the next EU research and innovation programme?

JOHN BELL: Policy-makers should seek to look into the middle distance: what is Europe and the world going to be like by 2040 and how do we prepare ourselves to engage with the opportunities and problems which that future poses. Many of the calls for research under Horizon 2020 have been driven by rather immediate preoccupations for which the Commission was looking for answers. That is consultancy, not research. Research involves imagining the future and wrestling with the issues that it throws up.

ALLEA’s FP9 working group’s position paper points out that the next framework programme must incentivise “impact focused on European societies not just economic or industrial benefit”. Could you elaborate which types of “impact focused on European societies” FP9 should specifically address?

J.B.: Innovation can be understood simply in terms of new products that will create new jobs and increase wealth. That is only part of the picture. European societies want a quality of life that comes from a tolerant living together in solidarity with those who are disadvantaged throughout the world. Such conviviality is the result not only of economic growth, but of caring for the environment, designing our cities, ensuring healthcare and welfare for the vulnerable in society, and promoting social integration of citizens, migrants and visitors.

How could the Societal Challenges pillar in Framework Programme 9 be more prominently developed and how would the role of researchers have to be adapted accordingly?

J.B.: We need first to identify the challenges that lie ahead. Horizon 2020 has rather a top-down approach to identifying these challenges and is very prescriptive about their content. The process needs more imagination to come from researchers who can suggest different themes to be explored. We also need to bring together the insights of different disciplines into reflection on these issues. Natural and biological scientists will bring insights from replicable trials. Humanities will bring insights from imagination and history, thinking through issues in hypothetical futures. Social sciences can bring forms of modelling to help us anticipate problems that may occur. Working together they can give a holistic view of what the future might be like and how to engage with opportunities and problems.

What are the most relevant contributions and/or shortcomings of the recently published Lamy Report?

J.B.: Lamy provides an important vision of how to develop research beyond 2020. Lamy recognises the importance of research and the need for a substantial commitment of funding. It recognises the important contribution of humanities and social sciences research to a holistic approach to problems. Lamy also recognises that ‘innovation is more than technology’ and that the contribution to society, as well as to the economy is important. Lamy’s approach to missions for research is far less detailed and prescriptive than Horizon 2020. At the same time, the indicative topics it suggests on p. 16 is too much focused on medical and technological developments. The broad topic of how we live together would encourage a wider range of issues to be addressed. ALLEA will be working with colleagues in other organisations to produce suggestions in time for the Lamy Group to review the feedback it has received in early 2018.

This interview was published in ALLEA’s Newsletter #12 (August 2017).