Concept and Challenges for the Future of Science

Under the support of the World Economic Forum upcoming Annual Meeting of New Champions, a group of 30 senior representatives from top research universities and prominent institutions gathered in Geneva to examine challenges in research. Three interrelated sets of challenges emerged with particular clarity- funding, communication and collaboration. The group also discussed solutions and opportunities connected with these challenges.

Funding-

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Even though the need to increase funding for scientific research received much attention, concern was also expressed about other issues. Among these was the importance in finding out the proper balance between basic and applied research and also between long-term big science research, like human genome project and independent single investigator studies with more limited objectives. There were also concerns about interference by political and other forces that challenge the merit-based peer review procedure and advocate non-scientific criteria for making funding decisions. Ensuring that social sciences are not neglected was an additional concern.

In light of these and other needs, states must strive to supply adequate support for scientific research, including basic research; funding institutions should strive to make certain that merit-based criteria and peer review govern funding decisions; and institutions conducting research have to ignore collaboration with funders who seek to control or distort their research agendas. To foster an environment in which these principles are respected and appreciated, it is important that the scientific community set up effective communication with non-scientific audiences, including investors and governments, and that research institutions generate platforms for sharing information in order to help build scientific literacy among the public. At last, at the international level, a global communications structure must be established to encourage coordination and cooperation.

Communication-

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There is a requirement to communicate scientific advances clearly and honestly and towards this end scientific community must use all available communication tools. Research institutions and investigators should make use of social media and newer technologies, in addition to more traditional avenues. They should also work with representatives from the media, government and business to build appreciation and understanding among relevant audiences. Industry-oriented labs at research universities for example, are well positioned not only to establish productive relations between academia and business other than also to communicate to society the value of research that is basic as well as applied. These needs and objectives need that researchers and scientists be willing and able to converse their findings to audiences that extend further than their academic peers.

Collaboration-

Participants affirmed the value of collaboration among researchers and scientists. This should happen within and across institutions and also within and across disciplines. To attain this, research institutions should find out ways to enable researchers in different fields to meet and learn about each other's work. All at once, even as they affirmed the value of collaboration and interdisciplinary research, most participants, although not all, stressed that this did not decrease the need for strong discipline-focused academic departments at research universities.

There was significant discussion, and some disagreement, about appropriate balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches in promoting collaboration within universities and other research institutions. The former can supply incentives and offer guidance informed by the big picture, while the latter ensures that decisions and resource allocations reflect knowledge and judgment of those who really engage in research. There was also discussion about place of patents in scientific research. Participants agreed on the importance of openness and creating a climate that encourages sooner than hinders innovation, leading some to argue for the elimination of patents or no less than for a significant reduction in their use.

With state-of-the-art research more and more conducted by scientists at numerous different institutions, collaboration across research universities and institutions, including those in different countries, will also contribute to production of accurate and valuable scientific knowledge. Participants agreed in this context that it is best for universities to set up a limited number of focused and high-value partnerships and correspondingly, that little is to be gained by signing a large number of content-free framework memoranda of understanding. In pursuing inter-institutional collaboration, it is important to align not only scientific interests but also both decision-making structures and norms relating to such matters as indirect cost recovery, protection of human subjects and intellectual property. These topics were the subject of lively conversation.

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