Rede von Helga Nowotny: Building Outstanding Research Environments in Europe and Beyond

Im Folgenden finden Sie den Text der englischen Rede von Professor Dr. Helga Nowotny vom 16. März 2012.

»1. The defence of the autonomy of the individual scientist against various attempts of control and constraint of individual creativity has a long tradition.

They can be seen as intellectual focal points where the protagonists take a stand vis-à-vis the shift in political priorities and their impact on science.

Already in the late 30ies, following a visit to the Soviet Union, Michael Polanyi became convinced that the kind of central planning of science to address societal needs he had witnessed would lead to suffocation and, moreover, was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of scientific practice. This was in opposition to J.D. Bernal, a prominent British crystallographer and marxist who arrived at the opposite conclusion, while Polanyi later went on to found a movement for freedom of science.

It is an ironic twist of history that Bernal’s advocacy of steering science became accepted practice everywhere, even if the social needs science was expected to serve were defined differently. In another landmark publication, Derek de Solla Price in 1963 succintly referenced this shift with the hyphen between “Little Science – Big Science”.

Public discussion was so much focused on the embattled figure of the individual scientist that the changes in the working environment of scientists – although they were as obvious as indicated in De Solla Price’s title – were often overlooked.

One exception was Norbert Wiener. Years after he died, an unpublished manuscript was found among the papers left by him. Wiener, one of the foremost mathematicians who took his ideas to engineering and to the design of all sorts of inventions, such as computers, communication networks, radar and artificial limbs, had in this posthumous publication already explored the various components of environments that encourage inventiveness.

For his own time, he diagnosed an ominous shift towards what he called the almost ‚inhuman’ industrial or government laboratory. His message was clear: truly original ideas cannot be produced on an assembly line, as the consequences of inventions are felt at distant times and places. He was upset about the constraints on scientific creativity imposed by the problems of secrecy associated with the rise of the military-industrial complex. He was wary about what he called ‚megabuck science’ promoted by business and government. These labs, he wrote, were not likely to be a good midwife or nurse new ideas. Instead, they were producing a generation of scientists with a ‚devotion to power and that minted symbol of power, money’.

For Wiener, the individual was deeply conditioned by the social milieu and the ‚technical climate’ of the ‚availability of materials and techniques’. But there was more to it: „New ideas are conceived in the intellects of individual scientists, and they are particularly likely to originate where there are many well-trained intellects and, above all, where intellect is valued“ (p.96).

Today’s concerns are no longer directed against the military-industrial complex, nor against Programmforschung. Undoubtedly, its increase puts pressure on the individual researcher to acquire a larger share of external competitive funding which limits the choice of research problems.

In addition – and this is new –, its increase also threatens the hard-won institutional autonomy, a rather recent acquisition of many continental universities. Presidents and rectors need to struggle to re-balance the many, often contradictory demands and obligations that come with external funding. As a result, ambivalence abounds.

While these issues are hotly debated, they are not fundamentally contested. At stake is rather how to cope with the in-built incompatible normative expectations of funding agencies, governments, university leaders and practising researchers. The problematic issues are the restructuring of universities faced with conflicting demands, how to balance research and teaching, and how to position universities, departments, research groups and the individual researcher in a competitive environment, marked by the weight given to impact, ranking lists, endless evaluations and research assessment exercises.

In this competitive atmosphere and hidden behind more overt political priorities is the question we are discussing today: what is an outstanding research environment? How to build one or many?

It is far from obvious which kind of outstanding research environment we are talking about. Even if we grant that individual researchers remain at the centre of our preoccupation, they need a supportive environment at least in a threefold temporal stage.

First, the right kind of environment is required in order for talented scientists to emerge. Scientific talent is to be found everywhere, but there are many places where it goes unnoticed and remains “un-nurtured”. This is a problem in universities overburdened by teaching loads, outdated curricula and lack of vision. It is a problem in certain parts of Europe (and even more, in other parts of the world).

Second, the right kind of environment is needed in order for the individual scientist to mature. This temporal phase often coincides with the post-doc stage in the career of a young researcher. People working in the field know where the attractive research environments are. The post-doc is under immense pressure to seek out environments most promising to further his/her career. In practice, this means finding the places with the greatest scientific opportunities; be it in terms of an inspiring group leader, the prospect of publishing rapidly in a renowned journal, or simply greater scientific independence.

This phase is highly competitive and fraught with risks. While intellectual mobility remains important – working in a productive environment that enhances the young researchers’ own productivity –, geographical mobility often involves a nomadic lifestyle with high personal costs. It is no coincidence that most women who decide to leave science do so during this phase.

Third, we finally come to the kind of environment capable of sustaining and maintaining continued productivity at the highest level: the unique blend of attractive infrastructure, inspirational colleagues and students, stability of funding and the indescribable genius loci that allows a place to radiate far beyond the immediate environment and that marks the place as truly outstanding in the wider scientific landscape.

2. This kind of environment is our central topic today, and I will treat it in two steps.

It may come as a surprise how much we know about the characteristics of such places. The exploration of the institutional and organizational features that influence the creativity of scientific discoveries and of research has a long, but uneven history,

One of the most detailed historical studies is devoted to what made Rockefeller University such an outstanding place in the 30ies. Timing, as always, played an important role, but it certainly helped to have flat hierarchies, an internationally open recruitment policy with emphasis on diversity, a leader with high scientific reputation and an ambitious vision to cut across existing fields, and assured and adequate resources. The author of the study, Roger Hollingsworth, later elaborated on these insights when he examined a large number of research breakthroughs in the biomedical sciences in the US across different research organizations.

These and other empirical findings confirm what we already know: the importance of research autonomy, of small group size, of international recruitment, adequate instrumentation and reasonable long-term funding., as well as a leadership that facilitates informal communication across research fields.

These characteristics are as obvious as they are difficult to replicate.

We also know where the successful research environments are today. We can name them. We can begin with Max Planck Institutes, well endowed, well organized, with great freedom accorded to directors for seven years to pursue the lines of cutting edge research that they were recruited for. We can include some of the oldest universities like Oxford and Cambridge, or outstanding institutions like the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. Among more recent newcomers, mention should be made of EPFL and IST Austria. Outside of Europe, places like the A* Institutes in Singapore, HHMI, the Kavli Institutes, Perimeter come to mind.

But to recognize which characteristics hold the key to success does not necessarily make it easier to follow. Imitation alone has never been a wise strategy. Each of these environments has successfully responded to a particular challenge or opportunity that was present at the time of their establishment. And path-dependency is not only strong in technological innovation, but also in institutional innovation, which makes it difficult to overtake the leaders.

Moreover, like in evolution, we tend to notice only the species of successful research environments that have survived. It is easy to overlook the many failed attempts at building a truly outstanding environment, although failures may also hold important lessons.

The experience after five years of existence of the ERC, with some 2.600 grantees funded so far, tells a familiar story. Approximately 50% of all ERC grants go to 50 institutions. They are known and you know them too. This is the concentration effect in science, a variant of Robert K. Merton’s famous Matthew effect in science. And let us not forget: one of the relative advantages enjoyed by US universities is the concentration of research funding on less than 10 % of degree-giving institutions.

But what about the other half, the approximately 430 host institutions dispersed all over Europe?

According to a study on understanding and assessing the impact and outcomes of the ERC funding schemes, EURECIA, several of these institutions started to engage in fierce competition with other universities. They have understood that it is up to them to provide better conditions, especially for the young talents in their midst, and to identify, encourage and guide them.

There are also institutions whose environment does not change much. The lone ERC grantee that happens to be there more or less by chance is a living proof that individual talent can be found everywhere. In general, although national context matters in terms of constraints or opportunities for the host institution, the organizational structure turns out to be of greater importance: it prevails in terms of predicting the potential uptake.

This leads me to the concluding part of our common quest: How to create creative environments?

3. The first and foremost question is: what is the specific challenge such an outstanding research environment is intended to respond to?

All successful creative environments established in the past seized an opportunity, based on a clearly defined response to a perhaps latent, but real and existing need. Abram Flexner’s vision laid down in his manifesto „The usefulness of useless knowledge“ led to the establishment of the IAS in Princeton and, subsequently other IAS, such as the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. If the idea of an IAS has recently been embraced by universities, especially in this country, this is just the kind of adaptation and accommodation of an original idea that the cunning of history is well known for.

Unintended consequences and the place, accorded by serendipity, are inscribed in the operational rules of an IAS that otherwise knows no operational rules.

It also matters which of the temporal phases in a scientific career, or rather which mixture, the creative environment still to be created is aiming at..

But the overriding and decisive question for the future is: what is it all about?

Let us briefly re-visit some of the major policy shifts of the past and their outcomes.

-    Creating creative environments is no longer a rallying call against Big Science. This wave is over; it has been successfully demonstrated how big (mostly public) money and bright minds can be mobilized. Big Science has become part of our everyday life and it continues to expand in new directions. Huge data sets continue to be produced, processed, stored and analyzed with the help of ever more sophisticated modelling and IT tools. Virtual science connects around the globe in an ever-growing number of networks, alliances, platforms and publications. Cooperation is flourishing as never before. While this poses its own problems, it is more in the direction of how to create virtual environments that are open and outstanding.

-    Nor does the controversy that raged in the 70ies about the „steering capacity“ of funding agencies and governments, and about whether science can be „steered“ at all, raise an eyebrow today. Not „Programmforschung“ per se is questioned, but rather how much, when and how.

-    Nor does the prescient warning by Norbert Wiener back in the 50ies against what he called „mega-buck science“ excite us today. Tendentiously, he described the growth of business and government-dominated laboratories that he witnessed in terms of a generation of scientists with a „devotion to power and that minted symbol of power, money“. Today, universities are exhorted to be as close as possible to industry and business. Who would seriously object within academia to closer ties with the ‚minted symbol of power’?

-    Let me also mention that the existence of the ERC, established a mere five years ago, with its bottom-up, excellence-only approach targeting the individual P.I. and his/her team, provides a fertile ground for individual scientific creativity to emerge across the whole spectrum of „Wissenschaft“ all over Europe. And it remains to be seen whether the new, experimental scheme of Synergy grants will become the core of future oriented creative environments.

So, where are the major challenges today that insistently call for the creation of outstanding creative environments? I see one such major challenge. It is huge and urgent: to safeguard and to nurture the production of a variety of new ideas in order to sustain the dynamics of scientific, technological and scholarly activities which got started some four hundred years ago with the European Enlightenment.

The growing influence of public policy goals on the allocation of resources for research, such as the Grand Challenges to be tackled in Horizon 2020 and a broad range of other topics waiting to be incorporated into research objectives, can only be successfully taken up and transformed if they are in the service of safeguarding, nurturing and increasing the variety of scientific and intellectual activities.

It is paradoxical that universities entering a European, if not global competition, are becoming structurally much more similar to each other.
Competition may lead to differentiation, but it may also foster structural similarities, for better or for worse.

Therefore, it is up to us to withstand the pressure to conform, to refuse to make promises we know that cannot be kept or to anticipate outcomes that we know cannot be predicted, only because we think we have to swim in the mainstream – although an old Chinese proverb warns us that only dead fish swim there.

This is a task that in the end only we, the scientific community, can engage in – with the welcome and necessary support from the Stifters, foundations and other policy-makers. We must make sure that the potential richness of sometimes seemingly odd ideas is not slashed before they even get a chance, only because one cannot calculate their expected impact. It is our responsibility to make sure that we as peers do not fall under the spell of our inbred conservativism, nor under the illusion that our pet ideas mark the cutting edge of science.

This one and major challenge to preserve and increase variety in the generation of new ideas emerges in a radically changed context: the global scientific landscape. We, the Euroamericans, are no longer alone in shaping neither volume nor content of the production of new knowledge. The double-digit increase in research funding and in numbers of publications in other parts of the globe speaks a clear message.

More is to come. Brazil and other countries from „the rest of the world“ have established fellowship schemes in order to attract bright, young or experienced researchers to work in these countries. This increases global competition for talent, but it also provides an opening for the variety of ideas to flourish.

Not that science is done differently in Sao Paolo, Bangalore or in Bejing. But different modes of thinking, ways of using equipment, experience gained in environments that are materialistically less endowed and therefore ingeniously inventive in other ways - they all form part of an increasing variety at the global level.

Faced with these challenges staring in our face, the components for building outstanding research environments remain the same. Yes, adequate resources are needed, the institutional hierarchy must be flat and internationally open, good selection procedures must be in place and a leadership facilitating communication across research fields is indispensable. But what counts in the end is how much creative variety will be encouraged to flourish.

Future generations of scientists and future societies will assess our achievements or failure as Stifters, funders, policy-makers and as responsible members of the scientific community, on the basis of whether we have been able to see beyond our immediate time horizon and national borders.

Whether we have understood the kind of investment needed now to sustain the long-term vision that began with the European Enlightenment.

Whether we have been able to lay the foundations for outstanding creative research environments with the objective of increasing variety of ideas.

Clearly this includes the variety of outstanding creative research environments that hopefully will emerge.«


Bernal, John Desmond (1939) The Social Function of Science. London: Faber & Faber.


Heinze, Thomas, Philip Shapira, Juan D. Rogers, Jacqueline M. Senker (2009) „ Organizational and institutional influences on creativity in scientific research“, Research Policy, 38, 610-623.

Hollingsworth, R. (2000). Major Discoveries and Biomedical Research Organizations: Perspectives on Interdisciplinarity, Nurturing Leadership, and Integrated Structure and Cultures. Paper Presented at a Research Symposium, University of Saskatchewan.

Hollingsworth, R. (2004) Institutionalizing excellence in biomedical research: the case of Rockefeller University. In: Stapleton, D.H. (Ed.), Creating a Tradition of Biomedical Research. Contributions to the History of Rockefeller University.Rockefeller University Press, New York, pp.17-63.

Polanyi, Michael (1951) The Logic of Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; and (1958) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wiener, Norbert (1993) Invention. The Care and Feeding of Ideas.Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

David Ausserhofer