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Klement Tockner: Creative environments

President of Austrian agency explains how the industry can benefit from basic science

Leader of the Austrian Science Fund since 2016, ecologist Klement Tockner is a professor at the Free University of Berlin

Léo Ramos Chaves

Ecologist Klement Tockner, president of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), emphatically points out the risks involved in adopting the economic and social impact of research as criteria for choosing which scientific projects will receive funding. “This can constrict innovation and the creative impulse of researchers,” he argues. Since 2016, Tockner has run the main basic research-funding agency in Austria: in 2018, it invested €230 million in projects—the equivalent of R$1 billion. While it advocates for projects driven solely by the curiosity of researchers, FWF recognizes the transformative potential of basic science in today’s industry. That is why the agency has taken on the task of creating points of contact between world-class research groups and Austrian companies—as explained by Tockner in the following interview given at the Global Research Council (GRC) meeting held last May in São Paulo (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 280).

In addition to investing in basic research, one of the missions of FWF is to foster links between scientists and companies. How do you do that?
I will use the development of new materials as an example. We have a large database of all the proposals we receive for this area, which contains information about research groups and what they do. We screen them in order to identify which groups or individual researchers are at the frontier of knowledge in the sector. We then ask the scientists if they are interested in contacting companies that wish to produce new materials. The industry, of course, knows people who do research in this area, but new groups emerge that produce knowledge with potential applications and have not yet interacted with companies. So our job is to create the conditions for new interactions to materialize.

These groups usually develop basic science. How can this knowledge be harnessed by the industry?
Interaction between world-class groups that produce basic science and innovative companies tends to benefit both sides. Researchers have much to gain in breaking the barriers of their laboratories and engaging in dialogue with the productive sector. This way, they know the demands of the industry and become aware of problems that haven’t been solved yet. The industry, on the other hand, has the opportunity to establish lasting links with academic groups that have the potential to reach such solutions, even if it takes some time. It is about providing environments with a high level of creativity, which is fundamental to stimulate innovation. The biggest impact we can generate as a funding agency is to secure funding for projects that, regardless of the outcome, could empower creative people who can work in the public and private sectors and ultimately promote transformations in society. This is the main impact of research on society, but it is extremely difficult to measure and evaluate.

Why doesn’t FWF consider social impact as a good criterion for selecting projects?
Because this approach can compromise research quality by inhibiting researchers’ ability to propose bold projects and take risks. Our goal is to fund projects driven by the curiosity of researchers in various fields of knowledge, including the humanities and arts. There is another organization dedicated to supporting applied research in Austria, and it has more resources than us. We are convinced that if the agency worries too soon about the impact the research will have on society, any intention to innovate that the researchers may have could be constrained. The other important aspect is that we want to stimulate transdisciplinary research. Austria is interested in encouraging diversity in research projects.

What is the most appropriate way to assess the impact of basic research?
We believe a good way to do this is to follow the careers of the researchers we support after their projects are completed. It is very important to know what these people are doing five or 10 years after they have completed a PhD program or a postdoctoral internship. Many end up working in areas different from those they studied, but they come into the market with superior, more crucial qualification, and with the ability to introduce new points of view wherever they go. Working on a research project is a great privilege, because it stimulates thinking and creativity and allows the absorption of knowledge that could not be otherwise acquired. One cannot learn creativity by taking courses: it is something that requires practical experience.

Does this also apply to the humanities and social sciences?
Yes, and that is why we do not consider the impact of the research when evaluating the proposals we receive. This would benefit only a few areas of knowledge, reducing the diversity of the projects we can support. In my view, all major societal challenges, faced both now and in the future, can only be solved through interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. And in this context, the humanities and social sciences play a fundamental role and need to be stimulated.

Does the evaluation of projects in these areas require the adoption of specific criteria?
It does. The same criteria cannot be used to assess the impact of research on both biomedicine and philosophy. Our agency has an evaluation panel made up of different areas, and this provides an environment of respect between them. We know what positive things one area can offer another. We cannot assume that one field of knowledge is more relevant or important than another. What really matters is supporting the most qualified projects. And excellence is something that is not negotiated.