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Peter Strohschneider: Freedom to seek the unknown

The president of the German Research Foundation, the DFG, believes it’s necessary to preserve space for research guided by scientists' curiosity

At the DFG, Strohschneider works to maintain a balanced ecosphere supporting research that drives incremental and disruptive innovation

Léo Ramos Chaves

German philologist Peter Strohschneider, 63, argues that balanced support for all areas of knowledge is essential for any country committed to long-term development. However, he emphasizes the potential of the humanities: “Without them, we would be doomed to a naive and limited view of societies, and their dynamics and challenges.” As president of the German Research Foundation (DFG), the main funding agency for the promotion of basic science in the country, Strohschneider was in São Paulo in early May for the 8th Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council, the GRC. In the interview below, Strohschneider talks about societal expectations regarding the economic and social impacts of research, the meeting’s central theme, and the importance of maintaining a balanced funding ecosphere, which addresses projects tailored towards generating new products and technologies as well as those guided only by the intellectual curiosity of scientists.

Why did the GRC decide to discuss the expectations regarding the economic and social impacts of research?
The GRC has dealt with the relationship between science, research, society, and economics since it was created. It’s dealt with it on a number of occasions, but the concrete decision to start discussing this subject more broadly came at last year’s meeting in Moscow, Russia. It was decided at the time that the theme of the 2019 meeting should be how funding agencies could deal with these expectations.

What is the importance of this discussion today?
Rising expectations about the social and economic impacts of research are not new. The debate over whether science should be concerned only with searching for the truth, through pure and integrated knowledge, or aim to obtain results that could have some practical utility has developed since the existence of science. What is challenging for research systems in recent years not only involves growing expectations about social and economic impacts but also about direct and immediate impacts. The increase in these expectations doesn’t necessarily reflect a deficiency of the research, but a shift in the discourse about political expectations and social justifications for the funding of science.

Are there risks to adopting economic and social impacts as criteria for deciding whether or not a project should be funded?
The question is not whether research should or shouldn’t have an impact. No researcher would claim the right to do a study that is programmatically without any impact. Nor would society expect scientists to do research that is programmatically not truthful, because that would be totally useless with respect to solving societal or economic problems. That is not the question; the question is how to implement, or how to deal with these impact criteria. However, research can have different kinds of impact, such as broadening the boundaries of some area of knowledge, contributing to the development of societies, stimulating technological innovations, or promoting the formation of a qualified scientific workforce. The key issue is how funding agencies can address or respond to these social and economic expectations.

And how did the GRC handle this discussion?
We have chosen to focus on two approaches. One is to discuss whether social and economic impacts can be adopted by funding agencies as criteria in the decision-making process for funding a project. The other approach assesses whether these impacts should be adopted as a criterion for evaluating completed or ongoing research. Both approaches require careful reflection on the part of the leadership of the funding agencies.

Autocratic regimes are afraid of the freedom of inquiry and intellectual debate that’s encouraged at universities, and therefore try to restrict their autonomy

The risks of implementing evaluation criteria regarding the impact of completed or developing research are considerably lower than the risks of implementing impact criteria in the process of project-funding decisions. A research project represents a promise of future research. Deciding whether a project will be funded based on the expected impact means trying to anticipate something that has not even begun and is not yet known to exist. That is a quite unsolid basis for evaluation. In addition, there is a risk that researchers would try to align the selection of their research topics with the funding agencies’ expectations of future impacts. This would narrow the spectrum of their research and the productivity of research to society and the economy at large, since they would be encouraged to formulate projects aimed at solving already known problems. A modern and productive scientific funding system must be open to funding research on questions the society does not yet know they will have in the future.

How has this issue been addressed by the DFG?
Not very differently than what FAPESP is doing. Our budget is €3 billion per year. This amount comes mainly from taxes, public money passed on by the federal government and also by the 16 German states. Only a small portion of our revenue comes from private sources. However, regardless of the size of the budget, the basic objective of any national or state funding agency should be to create and maintain a balanced research and funding ecosphere, which includes research aimed at generating new products and technologies as well as studies guided by the researchers’ intellectual curiosity. It’s important for agencies to establish this balance. It is of course entirely legitimate for modern societies to expect publicly funded research to bring tangible and immediate returns, or to deal with problems that they hold to be relevant. But it is wise at the same time to allow for research that is autonomous, vis-à-vis the given hierarchies of public relevance and impact expectations, and that some funding goes to prepare society for what I call the “unknown unknowns.”

Why is it important to keep funding for research guided by the intellectual curiosity of scientists?
It is common for societies to question the spending of public money on this type of research, favoring activities that give a visible and immediate return, especially in times of economic crisis and scarce resources. However, maintaining funding is important because curiosity-driven research has the potential to produce a truly new kind of knowledge, knowledge that can even disrupt the expectations the scientist and the funding agency had from the start. We are societies, economies, and cultures that depend on the notion of renovation, renascence, innovation, and progress, and the research systems are the paramount machine responsible for the production of transformative knowledge. They must be as open as possible to this approach, which has the potential to produce what I call the “new-new,” not the “old-new,” not the “new-I-already-expect.” Research systems in modern societies cannot focus only on incremental innovations that promote small improvements or updates to products, services, processes, or methods that already exist. They also need to invest in projects that could result in disruptive innovations, in knowledge they cannot expect to generate, or predict, when research efforts begin.

How can funding agencies help governments and decision-makers understand and value investment in this type of research?
By advocating that there are differences between the social, political, economic, and scientific systems, accepting that modern societies are differentiated societies that have different spheres, and that each of these different spheres works along different principles. For example, within the educational system, universities, primary and secondary schools, kindergartens, each work with a very different tempo in relation to their objectives. Like the educational system, the research system also works with its own tempo. It happens, however, that in the research system there must be time and funding for long-term perspectives. It is important to advocate to governments and decision-makers, that they perceive these differences and understand that societies will suddenly collapse if they will not hold with these differentiated systems. In the end, this argument, although more complex, tends to be more pertinent to politicians than the alternative. The alternative being that scientists or researchers make promises related to the future impacts of their research. The risk of these promises is that not all of them will be fulfilled within a given time span.

Curiosity-driven research has the potential to produce a kind of knowledge that can disrupt the expectations of scientists and funding agencies

For example?
The victory over cancer has been claimed countless times around the world over the last 50 years. And still today, people die from cancer. So what society sees there is that the promises of the research system are over-exaggerated—and that is not building trust, that is ruining trust between these systems and society.

How does the DFG deal with this issue and what lesson could countries like Brazil take from the German experience?
I don’t know what others could learn from the German experience, but I can say that in German science and education and research politics the acceptance that we need a differentiated and well-balanced system of basic and applied research of autonomous or curiosity-driven research—that the acceptance of such a differentiated, pluralistic ecosystem is still remarkably high. In this sense, the funding done by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of Germany becomes complementary to the DFG system. Of course, sometimes we face pressure to demonstrate the social impact or the economic relevance of the projects we fund. In general, however, German leaders understand the importance of having a program that operates autonomously in relation to the funding of different types of research, whether they are guided by thematic programs and therefore applied research, or driven by scientific curiosity.

In a speech at the GRC meeting, you mentioned risks related to the wave of populist governments in various countries. What are these risks?
There’s a lot of examples at hand that together with the rise of populist, or new, autocratic forms of political power, there comes an anti-intellectual and even an anti-science attitude. Climate change and vaccines are the most common cases in point, but in recent decades we have witnessed this phenomenon also in the context of gender research and discussions regarding the importance of the humanities and the autonomy of universities. Think of Turkey. Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, President Recep Erdoğan has been promoting mass dismissals of academics on the basis of dubious allegations of links to terrorism. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reduced funding or privatized universities, and censored conferences with subjects that weren’t to his liking.

How can we explain this phenomenon?
It has to do with at least two factors, in my assessment. One of them is the fact, observed over the course of history, that autocratic or dictatorial regimes have traditionally been afraid of the freedom of inquiry and intellectual debate that’s encouraged at the universities. The other point involves the lack of understanding on the part of these governments of what a university is, and what its function is. This is directly related to the fact that these governments neglect the complexity and differentiated qualities of modern societies. In doing so, they ignore, or are unable to understand, how a contemporary research system works. Just take the example of the humanities. I am convinced of their importance in the development of modern societies. I share the view that societies would simply be incapable of developing and prospering without the humanities. Without them, we would be doomed to a naive and limited view of societies and their structures, dynamics, and challenges.

What is the importance of preserving the autonomy of universities in this scenario?
I would say that universities are those machines by which modern societies produce their internal dynamics. That student revolutions occur once in a while, is not a fault of the university system, it’s in a way, the function of modern universities in modern societies. They deliver dynamics, they deliver tensions, and they deliver the change of generations, and thus work toward things becoming new, becoming progressive, becoming alt/rebel, and so forth. And the autonomy of the university is the principal prerequisite of this function. Autocratic governments are afraid of this sort of dynamic and this capacity for changing things, and therefore try to restrict or reduce the autonomy of universities.

How do you assess the statement of principles adopted at the GRC meeting?
I was very content with it. I expect that it will contribute to improving the debate in the countries where the GRC acts, to change the scientific and research discourse to the problems that we are really facing. And that is not the question of “impact” or “no impact,” but how to make the best decisions, how to create priorities for the research system, how to make balanced and pluralistic research and funding systems in the respective GRC member countries.

Do you think this can be applied in countries with such differing types of funding agencies and contexts?
I think so. Of course, there is modification needed in applying the statement of principles to the practices in the different settings, contexts, and ecospheres. They are principles, not concrete laws. The proposition is that they’ll help guide the decision-making process. These principles are well thought through and precise enough to be easily implemented by GCR members. At a time when freedom of research is under pressure and there is growing resentment over issues such as global climate change, the role of the GRC becomes even more important. My expectation is that the principles endorsed at the meeting will facilitate the establishment of a network of funding agencies capable of contributing to a free, productive, and open international research system.