Back to news   |   02/05/2019 18:05

International scientific collaboration will have to deal with a challenging political context

Peter Strohschneider, President of the German Research Foundation, stresses in an interview that the funding agencies represented by the Global Research Council should contribute to the creation of an international system that supports free, open, productive and impactful research.

By Karina Toledo | Agência FAPESP – Peter Strohschneider, President of the Executive Board of the German Research Foundation (DFG), believes that fostering a free, open, productive international research system with a significant impact in a challenging political context is the hard task to be tackled in the years ahead by the Global Research Council (GRC), a virtual organization comprising the heads of the world’s foremost science and technology research councils.

Strohschneider was in São Paulo to attend the eighth annual plenary meeting of the GRC on May 1-3. This was the first time the GRC held its annual meeting in South America. Heads of research funding agencies from dozens of countries participated in the event, organized by DFG, FAPESP and Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET).

At the end of the meeting the GRC issued a Statement of Principles containing guidelines to help ensure that its members know how to deal with the expectation of government and society that funding agencies should prioritize support for scientific research that produces solutions to economic and social problems worldwide.

DFG is Germany’s main source of funding for basic research. It has had cooperation agreements with FAPESP since 2006. The aims of these agreements include supporting collaborative projects conducted by scientists, students or research groups in Brazil and Germany, funding exchange activities that help lay foundations for the development of cooperative research projects, and assisting the mobility of young scientists.

On April 30, Strohschneider sat down with FAPESP President Marco Antonio Zago and Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the foundation’s Scientific Director, to discuss ways of strengthening the partnership between FAPESP and DFG, and of enhancing the visibility of the funding opportunities offered jointly by the two agencies.

On this occasion, DFG’s President gave Agência FAPESP an interview in which he defended the importance of funding curiosity driven research. “The political priorities are volatile and change over time. Society acts wisely when it prepares not only for the hierarchy of contemporary relevances but also for unforeseen problems. That is the function of curiosity driven research,” he said.

For Strohschneider, in the coming years the GRC should contribute to efforts to strengthen international scientific collaboration “in an age when the political context is tending to become more complicated”.

Agência FAPESP – How is scientific research funding structured in Germany?
Peter Strohschneider – There’s a consensus that Germany should invest at least 3.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in research. That’s about €80 billion a year. Research done in private-sector companies accounts for two-thirds of the total. The other third is public funding that goes to projects conducted at universities and research institutions such as those affiliated with the Max Planck Society and Leibniz Association, among others. DFG is the leading provider of third-party funding of curiosity driven research. It has an annual budget of €3.2 billion, which is public money transferred by the federal government and also by Germany’s 16 states. A very small proportion of our budget, about €1 million, is private money. We award grants in response to applications from individual researchers or research groups. The decision-making process focuses almost exclusively on the scientific or academic quality of the proposal. We rarely use mechanisms such as calls for proposals or research programmes on a predefined topic. Researchers at universities and research institutions in Germany can apply for funding at any time, on any topic of interest, and for projects of any size. We have funding lines that range from €5,000 – to hold a symposium, for example – to €40 million for a 12-year project.

Agência FAPESP – Does DFG do only bottom-up research funding, supporting projects that are entirely designed in terms of the researcher’s ideas?
Strohschneider – Yes, DFG provides bottom-up research funding only. We receive the applications and try to make our funding mechanisms flexible enough to meet the researcher’s or research group’s needs as best as we can, bearing in mind that methods vary according to the knowledge area. Philosophers work differently from particle physicists. Clinical trials in medicine are different from quantitative surveys in sociology. We cover the full knowledge spectrum, not just science and engineering but also social sciences, clinical studies and humanities in general.

Agência FAPESP – With regard to public funding in Germany, is there pressure to select research projects with a more evident economic or social impact or that match government’s priorities?
Strohschneider – For this purpose we have funding awarded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research via a complementary system to DFG that focusses on applied research and research with a societal or economic impact. They’re separate but complementary systems. Of course, the question “What’s this project useful for?” may crop up at DGF as well. But we aren’t under strong pressure to show that the projects we fund have social impact or economic relevance. We could do so, as almost 40% of our funding goes to research in biomedicine. We also invest significantly in mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, and many other areas. We try to make sure that the success rates [proposals approved relative to those submitted] in the different knowledge areas and funding schemes are equivalent, with minor exceptions. We want to make sure the chances that a woman has a project in the field of literature approved are the same as those of the male head of a cancer clinic or a male engineer who’s developing a new product. Overall, we’ve been successful in this regard.

Agência FAPESP – When the science and technology funding budget shrinks, as it has in Brazil, should the criteria for selecting projects change?
Strohschneider – My argument doesn’t depend on the size of the budget. It would be equally valid if our budget were €1 billion instead of more than €3 billion per year. The key point is that you need to build a balanced decision-making system. It’s perfectly legitimate for society to expect research funded with public money to solve problems considered relevant. This is what programme-oriented research [on predefined topics] does. At the same time it’s wise to accept that some of the funding doesn’t comply with the hierarchy of public relevance and is invested autonomously with the aim of preparing society for problems as yet unknown. Furthermore, there are social problems that lie outside the scope of political discourse. For example, none of us could imagine 20 years ago that issues of a religious nature would become so important to today’s societies, to global conflicts and to the economy. We lack knowledge about the sociology of religion today. This is just as true if you’re trying to understand the situation in Brazil, a traditionally Catholic country, or fundamentalist Islamic societies, or again Islamist communities that challenge the global security system, or Israel and its neighbours. The political priorities are volatile and change over time. Society acts wisely when it prepares not only for the hierarchy of contemporary relevances but also for unforeseen problems. That is the function of curiosity driven research, autonomous research not tied to a predefined topic. DFG is an agency for this modality, within a broader system of research funding.

Agência FAPESP – What was the aim of the meeting you had at FAPESP?
Strohschneider – To intensify and reaffirm the good relationship that has existed for many years between DFG and FAPESP. We want to think about how to develop the partnership even further. We discussed strategies for making the funding opportunities we offer jointly more visible to researchers. We need to devise means of communicating and bringing together people who can expand bilateral collaboration in future.

Agência FAPESP – What to expect of the annual meeting of the world’s main research funding agencies in São Paulo?
Strohschneider – We expect that the document we’ll endorse in the form of a statement of principles will help the GRC’s members to carry out their research funding activities even better. We also expect that, as in previous years, the plenary meeting will be a platform for the heads of research councils to reach an understanding and an opportunity to get to know people and to network. This will contribute to efforts to strengthen international scientific collaboration in an age when the political context is tending to become more complicated.

Agência FAPESP – How so?
Strohschneider – Because research is often politicized nowadays. Research is so important that it can become an instrument of imperialist and hegemonistic policies, of new nationalist and populist forms of autocratic power, in the context of a structural crisis in liberal democracy. This could become a political age in which hegemonic influences are remodelled and the world ceases to be monocentric – I’m referring to the United States and China. A time in which freedom of research is under severe pressure, and there’s growing resentment towards topics such as global climate change. This context makes the GRC’s role all the more important. My own expectation is that the São Paulo meeting will contribute to the establishment of a network of funding agencies capable of fostering a free, open, productive international system for the funding of research with a significant impact.

Photo credit: Piu Dip / Agência FAPESP