In the spirit: there's more to research than money

EU should place spiritual values above potential profit in funding considerations, Chris Parr hears

January 31, 2013

Universities in the European Research Area have lost touch with the spiritual ideals of the European Union’s founding fathers and should aim to restore such values to their scientific research, it has been claimed.

According to academics leading the Restoring Spiritual Values to European Science research project, policymakers in the ERA focus more on the potential for financial gain than on what research might achieve more widely. They want European science funding programmes to consider “spiritual” values when allocating grants.

John Wood, the principal investigator and former chief executive of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, said that the values of EU architects such as France’s Robert Schuman and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, with their “Christian Democratic roots”, “are not being reflected today in how science is undertaken”.

“Most of the countries, their funding, and the way research is being pushed is very much towards economic growth rather than sustainability, quality of life and other things,” said Professor Wood, who is secretary general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. “I would like people to start asking what they’re in it for rather than responding to external forces.”

Although the project was “not pushing a Christian agenda”, Professor Wood said he would like to see more Christian values in research. “We come from that [Christian] angle because we come from a Judaeo-Christian country, so that’s inevitable.”

The research, which is funded by the University of Cambridge’s Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, hopes to influence policy by presenting evidence on people’s attitudes to how science funding is allocated.

Professor Wood’s co-researcher Diana Beech, research associate at the Faraday Institute, admitted that there had been some negative reactions from people who disagree with the project’s aims.

“The tendency is to interpret the word ‘spiritual’ as religious,” she said. “Spirituality is defined in a number of different ways. We’ve got people who define it as religion, through to people who define it as just curiosity - exploring the world, following a call or a passion, and not necessarily a religious one.”

However, Marianne Baker, who recently completed a PhD on the molecular pathology of cancer at Queen Mary, University of London, expressed reservations.

It is “not necessary or appropriate” to inject a spiritual aspect into research funding, she said. “The insinuation appears to be that scientific endeavours that aim to improve economies and living standards…and further our knowledge…cannot be moral without religious guidance.

“If individuals are driven to work and succeed in their lives because of spiritual beliefs, that is fine. But I do not see a need to bring such a driving force into education universally - it is not required and it is not ethical.”

Dr Beech and Professor Wood hope that their findings will influence Horizon 2020, which will commit about €80 billion (£67.4 billion) to European science over seven years.

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