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FP9 should keep funding blue sky research, say ERC grantees

13 Oct 2016

ERC grantees Anna Davies, Riekelt Houtkooper, and Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez speaking at the Science|Business conference Research Strategies: Europe 2030 and the next Framework Programme

Recipients of grants from European Research Council (ERC) have called for a significant portion of the budget of the next EU research programme to be devoted to blue sky research projects.

Funding basic science allows researchers to experiment and to take unbeaten paths towards solving grand societal challenges, ERC grantees told a Science|Business meeting in Brussels yesterday that looked into the plans and prospects for Framework Programme 9 (FP9).

“There should be room for blue sky research in funding schemes,” said Riekelt Houtkooper, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, who is trying elucidate the relationship between diet longevity. Houtkooper currently uses worms to test the impact of diet on ageing and will need continuous financial support to take his project to the next step: human testing. “It is a winding road and [it] has roadblocks, but it is very important to invest in this kind of basic research,” Houtkooper said.

The results of such research are not always immediate and it is difficult to convince private funders to support blue sky research. This is a gap public funding bodies like the ERC should continue to fill when FP9 succeeds the Horizon 2020 research programme in 2021. “[Research] budgets should give scientists the freedom to explore uncharted territories,” said Houtkooper.

ERC grants allow researchers to pursue projects with no clear prospects for immediate impact and which no other funding streams would finance. “The strength of the ERC scheme allows blue sky thinking, to approach things in novel ways without being guaranteed success,” said Anna Davies, a researcher at Trinity College Dublin, who heads the ERC-funded Sharecity project, which is researching the sustainability of urban food systems.

“We are allowed to experiment and that is what we need with [grand societal] challenges,” Davies said. Public funding schemes allow researchers to ask new questions and approach topics in novel ways without having to guarantee the success of their ideas. “Almost all the other funding streams require you to know the results before you start research,” Davies said.

Grants for blue sky research also keep scientists independent, said Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, a researcher at the University of Navarra in Spain. His research on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet could have been easily funded by food companies, such as olive oil producers and olive farmers, but he preferred to avoid any conflict of interest and maintain the credibility of his research.

“Olive oil companies would give me money,” Martinez-Gonzalez said, “but it is important to be independent and [here] public funding comes into play.”