Big shout for research

June 16, 1995

Research has traditionally existed as a part of our culture, with scientific breakthroughs occurring in a more or less haphazard way. Small, self-governing groups have been responsible for major scientific projects. Today, this picture is changing. From being a cultural element of social life, research has become a strategic player in national endeavours to pull ahead in research and development.

Denmark is coming up from behind in research investment by adding approximately Pounds 50 million each year to the public research budget. The aim is, of course, to cope with international competition in the advanced fields of knowledge-based production.

Our country's traditional weakness - a lack of very large private companies investing in research and development and a lack of military-based research and development - is now slowly being turned into our forte. The wide range of small and medium-sized enterprises in this country - many of them already with a highly specialised production - now form the basis for potential growth. A growth that may last well into the next century. On top of that, a national strategy for research is to be drawn up later this year which will focus on linking Danish industrial strongholds with dynamic research environments.

The current trend to link research closer to policy-driven national strategies is, of course, a challenge to the very structure of classical research. In the process of defining national fortes, one issue dominates: what are the characteristics of a dynamic research environment?

Of course, there is no easy or eternally valid way to pin down such characteristics. The prerequisites are as different as the humans involved. The fields of science are different. What seems to be the golden answer for the physicist is not necessarily the golden answer for the linguist.

Allow me, however, to stress one apparently common element in the creation of dynamic scientists and dynamic scientific environments: the human factor. First we need to reflect on the available education.

Research is, at its root, a freewheeling lifestyle in which the freedom to pursue individual goals must be adapted to the established traditions of the science chosen. The scientist's capacity for fresh thinking and creativity, ability to face a challenge, and especially to interact socially with colleagues - all these are precious talents not easily cultivated. Policy-driven strategic programmes for research must not be pushed beyond the point where they damage the cultivation of the scientific talents so important for the future.

The ideal structure of scientific education resembles the medieval training of craftsmen. The modern scientist, of course, acquires the necessary tools by taking masters degrees, subsequent activities at PhD level and international training. Behind these structures, however, lies a personal system of knowledge transfer.

Any scientist knows that quality and originality require the use of a personally fitted tool which has to be mastered to perfection. In the course of scientific education that tool is handed over by senior scientists who, apart from their great professional skills, also have the patience to cultivate the talent of the next generation. We must not forget that this medieval-looking apprenticeship system has played a decisive role in the development of high-quality, dynamic research activities.

It would be risky to tamper with a model which has proved to be such a success. In other words, education based on research activities and a personal relationship to senior scientists is essential for the creation and continuation of stimulating research environments. Quality has nothing to do with the size of grants but with the personal quality and prestige of the individual scientist in relation to his or her research area.

Having fulfilled the prerequisite of intellectual ability, the most important parameter of a dynamic scientific environment is the social one. Dynamic, school-founding environments are often characterised by not only a high degree of professional respect between scientists and students but also by a great deal of social respect and sense of responsibility.

A department or a group of scientists cannot be staffed by judging only the professional qualifications of applicants. When scientific posts are filled in the future, more attention must be paid to sociology, psychology, considerations of management potentials and the ability of the applicant to interact with fellow senior and junior researchers as well as with students.

This is why all professionally managed universities and other public science institutions should establish, as a matter of course, a well-defined strategy for the recruitment of scientific staff. Gone are the days when the advertising of a vacancy resulted in the ideal person replying. The recruitment of new staff is a matter of personal interest to the scientists of an institution. When they are arranging interviews and telephone calls a department and its staff are being tested. If the qualified applicant does not accept the post offered, the department has failed.

Successful recruitment calls for speedier decision-making than is usually seen today. Qualified applicants will often have other offers of job opportunities. They may not be prepared to wait for a dean or a faculty council who seems to have all the time in the world.

The competence of a department at employing staff should, to a greater extent, be a matter of personal interest to the research management of an institution. On the whole, governing bodies act too slowly, which is why it is so important that the research management inspires the confidence necessary to speed up employment procedures. As a natural consequence of this speeding up, it will be much easier to determine where responsibility should lie.

Since science is a social act, a critical mass is indispensable for scientific quality. A group of scientists must be of a certain size to function optimally. Very small groups are not capable of developing the necessary internal, professional dialogue, or attaining the level of intellectual ability to attract new players. With this in mind, it is my hope that, with due regard to the traditions and needs of individual research subjects, universities will not in future advertise individual vacancies but instead, group vacancies.

Ove Nathan, the former rector of the University of Copenhagen, often described the canteen of the Niels Bohr Institute as an invaluable meeting point where theories were presented and dismissed over sandwiches. Scientists should, he said, be within shouting distance of each other.

Perhaps the malaise of some research environments stems from scientists not being within shouting distance of each other. If people are too far apart, if office doors are too firmly closed and if, on the whole, there are too few colleagues around within shouting distance, then research will suffer and the environment will not stand many chances of developing into a strong unit.

In the process of creating a national strategy for research, we must not - amid our models and boxes - forget the human factor in research. The basis of any successful national strategy is scientific quality. Strong scientific groups are chiefly created and maintained at local level. To make many brilliant brains communicate efficiently with each other is hard work. It requires well-educated staff, good management, critical mass and foresight.

If these ingredients unite, the common strength of the environment will soon result in synergy, co-operation, exchange of knowledge and contacts with the outside world.

Ove Poulsen is director of the Danish Ministry of Research.

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