ESOF 2014 Copenhagen Special Issue – Print Edition

Welcome to this Special Issue of EuroScientist on: ESOF 2014 Copenhagen!

We hope you will enjoy this issue, which is sponsored by ESOF 2014.

What can a conference like this one bring to you? Those among our readers who have a sweet tooth will agree that such events can be compared to the cherry on the cake of academic life. Once every two years, it is time to enjoy a stimulating flow of discussions. Participants are guaranteed to have fruitful encounters with other people from various horizons. They may not be like-minded but, at least, share similar concerns about European science, policy or science communication. This is what ESOF 2014 is about!

In this special issue of the EuroScientist, we have selected a series of themes from the event that we wish to bring to your attention. These are key issues where renewed discussions are essential to further the debate. We would also like to invite you to comments directly below each article and get the debate going in the running up to the event.

Clearly, communicating among academic peers is not enough for the cause of science to progress. As Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisory to the European Union, puts it, in an exclusive Skype interview to the EuroScientist: “One of the things I would really encourage is for scientists to get out and to communicate to people about the value of what we do,” she says.

The truth is that it requires energy and efforts to take action in the wake of these stimulating discussions. So, this year, we hope that ESOF 2014 will truly deliver some progress in the causes that concern all of those involved in European science, and its collaboration beyond our borders.

The conversation is about to begin. So join in!

You can also find out more about the EuroScientist by attending the ESOF 2014 session on the future of science communication.

You can get here a printed edition of this special issue.

The EuroScientist team


Multiple perspectives matter in shaping science policy too

By Sabine Louët, editor, EuroScientist.

Scientific advice revisited

Do European countries need a Chief Scientific Adviser?

By Arran Frood, science journalist based in Bristol, UK.

Exclusive Skype Interview of Anne Glover, EU Chief scientific advisor: The art of providing scientific advice to policy makers

By Sabine Louët, editor, EuroScientist.

Risk and uncertainty communication

Handling uncertainties and risks in society requires all actors to cooperate

By Dino Trescher, science journalist based in Berlin, Germany.

Women in Science

Research funding gap: her excellence dwarfed by his excellence

By Liisa Husu, Örebro University, Sweden.

Read also from our previously published related topics:

Towards research excellence rather than excellence itself

By Anthony King, science journalist, Dublin, Ireland.

Evaluation: dogma of excellence replaced by scientific diversity

By Francesco Sylos Labini, ROARS, Italy.

Two myths shattered: the gender differences in leadership and the glass ceiling for women

By Ida Irene Bergstrøm, science journalist, Oslo, Norway.

Do science girls have an image problem?

By Arran Frood, science journalist, Bristol, UK.


Exclusive Skype interview of Jean-Patrick Connerade from the European Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters: Science meets poetry with a Danish flavour

By Sabine Louët, editor, EuroScientist.

Previously published sponsored advance coverage on ESOF 2014

From our special issue on alternative research funding:

Research funding: trust, freedom and long-term vision pay off

By Thomas Sinkjær, Danish National Research Foundation, Denmark.

Economic models: ever evolving target for adequate policy making

By Torben Andersen, University of Aarhus, Denmark.

From our special issue on ethics, values and culture driving research:

Does media coverage of research misconduct affect public confidence in science? Part of ESOF 2014 special sponsored advance coverage

By Maria Lindholm and colleagues, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Sweden.

Exclusive interview: The pressures making scientists go off-piste: Nicholas Steneck, Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research, USA. Part of ESOF 2014 special sponsored advance coverage

By Sabine Louët, Editor, EuroScientist.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Guillaume Baviere



Multiple perspectives matter in shaping science policy too

Credit: Mike Kollöffel, DR

The most popular Danish cultural export in recent times is arguably the TV series Borgen. Outlining the intricacies of the mechanisms of democracy, the series follows Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in her rise and fall from power. Scientific themes pervade the series because science is at the heart of many societal issues debated by politicians prior to translating decisions into policies that ultimately will affect citizens. Issues at stake in the series range from the environment, with green power production, to agriculture, with intensive pig farming.

The mechanisms leading to the adoption of specific policies in party politics portrayed across the episodes appear convoluted. Those defining science policy in Europe are, by far, not less convoluted—it is a long term game, subject to countless twists and turns.

Politicians’ choices about which kind of science to support take into account other factors other than just scientific facts. Often, various influencing factors, such as lobbies and public opinion may be key in politicians’ decision making. These too often dwarf the influence of the scientific advice received, despite its solid evidence base.

One contributing factor to this disconnect is the missing link between the views of politicians and those of scientists. Although issues at stakes can be very complex, sometimes there appears to be a lack of understanding of the value of what science can bring to those at the receiving end of research: citizens.

Thus, linking these three entities together—scientists, political players and citizens—requires, among others, the mediation of journalists and communicators. This is why the media plays a key role in stimulating the debates surrounding policies, in Borgen. And this is why discussions through pan European participatory media, such as the EuroScientist, have a key role to play in promoting evidence-based policy making and stimulating open debate during this process.

In parallel, the ESOF 2014 conference–due to be held in Copenhagen between 21st and 26th June 2014–provides a rare opportunity for “citizens and journalists and scientists and politicians and policy makers [of] getting together. And that’s quite unusual,” as Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisory to the European Union, puts in an exclusive interview to the EuroScientist. Perhaps, the crux of the matter is precisely that: such gatherings are not frequent enough!

Sabine Louët, Editor, EuroScientist

Sabine Louët will take part to an ESOF 2014 session entitled The future of science communication.

Another ESOF 2014 session relevant to this editorial is entitled: Evidence-based policies in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Featured image credit: Mike Kollöffel, DR


Do European countries need a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Credit Doug Wheller

Health, transport, science and security: these are the areas of government where the mantra of ‘evidence-based policy making’ is repeated across departments. Especially for science, one would think that each European member State would have an easily identifiable individual that can provide independent, trusted advice to leaders on controversial topics such as shale gas or genetically modified crops. There might also be expected some degree of harmony in the way advice is filtered to the upper echelons of power. But no. A couple of years ago there were only three: the UK, Ireland and the Czech Republic. Only the UK has a dedicated Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in medical scientist, Sir Mark Walport. But both Ireland’s and the Czech Republic‘s CSAs’ job have been repositioned and redefined, the latter in February 2014.

Do scientists in the 27 European member States without a dedicated person to exclusively fulfil the role need a CSA? Do they have multiple experts performing the job on an ad hoc basis? It is difficult to assess what exactly they are missing out on, if at all.

One person in favour of CSAs at national level is the EU’s first Chief Scientific Adviser, biologist Anne Glover, who has held the inaugural post since late 2011 and is due to retire from this position at end of 2014. Reporting to the to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, she says the role is about having a trusted voice that government can call on to translate complex issues for policy-making minsters. Glover, who was also CSA for Scotland from 2006 to 2011, says CSAs can bring a focus for credible evidence-based policy in their member state. “And an understanding how that evidence should or should not be used in policy-making.”

She plans to develop her own, informal network of CSAs across Europe in the absence of formal posts. She’s also called for a new system of evidence gathering within the European Commission that entirely disconnects evidence gathering with the political imperative.

A friendly ear

The rationale for having a CSA is simple in theory: a large proportion of politicians across Europe have backgrounds in law, linguistics or the arts. In some countries, studying classics of Roman and Greek mythology is deemed the most suitable qualification for running a country. One would think key scientific advisers would be needed to rise above the politics and stick to the facts. It would require “someone who is not political,” as Glover puts it. “Someone who is stepping over the divide between evidence and policy, and politics.”

But governments across Europe are organised very differently. States like Germany have a more federal structure; then there are the two science ministers in the Wallon and Flanders regional governments of Belgium. Glover says that having one person to draw advice from, or hold to account, is a more Anglo-Saxon way of going about business. So it is no surprise that the US, Australia and New Zealand also have a single chief adviser.

Many scientists are drawn to the single CSA model. “Many important decisions are made without advice of these types of individuals,” says molecular microbiologist professor Victor de Lorenzo at the Spanish National Biotechnology Centre, in Madrid, Spain. “Some countries have them [CSAs] and some don’t, and I think that’s bad.”

Lorenzo says we are living in societies that are dependent on technology – and will be more so to move on from oil-based economies for example – and that it is essential that top political managers have a close person who is able to provide advice on developments that have an impact on policy. “Political decisions should be guided by solid science,” he says.

He is the co-chair with Glover of the relatively new Science and Technology Advisory Council, a body of 15 academics created in 2013 to advise the EC President. As a group, they have reported on the role of science in society, and their second report will be about future technologies that could be disruptive in the future, such as human enhancement. “It is not usual that active scientists are heard by such a high level of decision makers,” says Lorenzo of the group.

European CSA network

But as a group, this advisory council is some way from the individual CSA role that scientists like Lorenzo and Glover would like to see. As the EC’s CSA, Glover is now sounding out individuals to take on such a role as part of an informal pan-EU CSA network. She says she has a dozen nominees from the scientific communities of member states such as Sweden, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain that will meet at ESOF 2014 in June.

What she says is important in a CSA is credibility in their scientific community as well as in political circles. Glover admits, however, that the scope and role of such a group is yet to be formalised. “I would very much like for us to have an informal network of European CSAs or equivalents,” she says. “To discuss key areas around science advice sharing, best practice, including in times of emergency where we have to translate advice very quickly.”

But it’s not a model that suits everyone. Jean Pierre Alix says the structure of research in France, where he was an adviser to the Minister of Research from 1995-97, is already very complex, and features smaller advisory panels. “So it is not evident how a new Super Chief scientist would help,” he says. Also a Science in Society Program Chief at France’s national funding agency CNRS from 2006-11, he adds that the need for CSAs have come from different historical events. “So the sea to promote science may follow different paths.”

However, one advantage he does see is if Euro-CSAs could meet in a formal way to alert and advise on common questions in European science policy. “But the European science budget would have to increase really if one wants this mechanism to be influential,” says Alix.

Science advocacy

Another role for a Europe-wide network of CSAs could be championing the cause of science and fighting for finances in their respective member states. Genetics professor from Trinity College Dublin, Patrick Cunningham was Ireland’s CSA from 2007 to 2012. During this period, the country encountered significant financial turmoil. “I certainly feel having a CSA at that time that I was able to articulate, both in committee as well as in public, the importance of science as a long-term investment in the country’s future,” he says.

Cunningham explains that part of the role was sustaining the courage and belief of the political decision-makers to continue building on what had been built on in previous years. “I think there’s evidence of that there: science spending held up through the recession better than almost any other area of the country’s expenditure,” he says, though adding that he cannot claim to have been fulcrum of that change.

His CSA role was controversially merged—some say axed—with Mark Ferguson‘s role as director general of funding agency Science Foundation Ireland, Dublin. Critics say it is a clear conflict of interest to have the same person giving advice as executing it. Indeed, Ferguson holds the keys to around €140 million of funding power, the country’s single largest research-funding agency. Cunningham, though, only diplomatically questions whether any one person can do the two roles: “I’m not criticising the judgement, but to have more than a full other job to do means they don’t have too much time [for the CSA role].”

Holding in, speaking out

A key issue is the degree of the independence of CSA roles. Cunningham says that independence is important, because almost every other voice in the political space is a voice with a special interest of some kind. How much can they really speak out?

One advisor who found out the hard way was neuropharmacology professor David Nutt of Imperial College London, UK. As head of the UK’s Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs he was infamously sacked by the government for telling the truth about the relative dangers of legal versus illegal drugs. Despite his experience, he is broadly in favour of CSAs. “I think they are critical to ensure the voice of science is heard at all levels of government,” he says. Nutt also thinks a network of Euro-CSAs could be a strong voice for scientific reason in Europe. “Chief scientists should cover all briefs, but each different department should have their local experts.”

He adds that ideally they should be independent – but the degree of independence comes down to trust. “Sadly in the past it’s always been you trust us [i.e. the government] and we will trust you when it suits us.”

In an attempt to improve trust and discourse between politicians and scientists, some researchers even published 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims in the journal Nature, ranging from ‘bias is rife’ to ‘randomisation avoids bias’; a case perhaps for looking again at performing randomised trials on policy so that they are evidence-based.

CSAs draw upon “tremendous experts in almost all areas of science and technology,” as the UK’s CSA Mark Walport told the EuroScientist in a podcast, last year, reflecting on his own experience. This is clearly essential. Without properly independent expert advice any new CSAs in European States could find themselves with roles that could be rightly criticised as merely ceremonial – to cut ribbons and open labs, or take flak for unpopular technologies like genetically modified crops. Worse still, they could just be accused of being government spin doctors.

No-one wants that. What is really important is governments that are committed to science. And it is also key that science is used judiciously in policy-making by politicians with a scientific background at the heart of government.

Unfortunately, politicians have one trump card over scientists: they were democratically elected. To those with scientific sensibilities, it might look like a mean trick, but elected officials are obliged only to draw upon advice, not to execute it. They can always be swayed by second guessing what voters might think, or want, and claim to be representing the wishes of their constituents.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Doug Wheller

A ESOF 2014 sessions relevant to this post is entitled: Evidence-based policies in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Arran Frood

Arran is a freelance journalist based in Bristol, UK.


Anne Glover: the art of providing scientific advice to policy makers

Favourite Portrait less than 1MB

Anne Glover currently serves as Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission (her title is abreviated as EU CSA). She is also a Scottish biologist and professor of molecular biology and cell biology at the University of Aberdeen, UK. She was previously the first ever Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland, between 2006 and 2011.

We present here an exclusive Skype interview of Anne Glover with the EuroScientist. Unfortunately, the video quality is somewhat constrained by the mobile Skype communication used for the recording. As some of you may already know, Skype does not feature on the computers of the European Commission (EC)— quite understandably so, in the light of revelations concerning the US National Security Agency eavesdropping on the EU.

Despite issues with image quality, the EuroScientist made the decision to publish this interview. We do not want to sacrifice appearances over substance because of our limited technical means and resources. In publishing this interview, we remain true to the grassroots spirit of the EuroScientist magazine, bringing our readers information from scientists, working at all levels of the scientific hierarchy, with interesting stories to tell.

In this interview, Glover talks about the art of providing science policy advice to policy makers, using evidence-base. “We’ve always needed scientific advice because if you are going to develop a policy, it is good that it be based on some kind of evidence, that it is transparent, and that people can interrogate, and that the policy is not based on gut feeling,” she says.

She also replaces her role into the wider context of a highly research intensive society. She adds: “As we are in a period of almost exponential change—I am just thinking about how quickly knowledge is generated and how many new technologies there are—we probably do need scientific advice much more now than we used to.” She then gives the example of data regulation, where the amount of personal data, accumulated on the internet, is such that policy may need to restrict unnecessary or unwanted data capture.

Questioned about the art of giving advice outside her own area of expertise, Glover explains that she is rarely asked to provide advice in her own field. Instead, she relies on a number of EU agencies, such as the EC Joint Research Centre, experts from various agencies associated with the Commission, such as the European Food Safety Authority, the European Medicine’s agency as well as the scientific advisory councils from national science academies and the EU Science and Technology Advisory Council inaugurated in 2013. “I don’t have a super brain that knows everything, far from it, but … I know whom to ask.”

The most challenging aspect of her job, she explains, relates to the slow pace of change. By comparison to doing research in her own lab where she has a bit more control over how quickly work progresses, providing advice at the EC level means that consultation with the 28 member States slows things down. Yet, “the fact that there are 28 member States is a wonderful thing because they each have their own personality and expertise in different areas…”

I think where we could do things better is to make it “much much easier for different policy areas to access the best possible evidence.” It is not so easy for policy makers who do not have a knowledge of scientific networks, she acknowledges.

She sees further improvements required in having a clearer demarcation between science and policy. “It would be useful for people to have a clear understanding of where the evidence stops and where policy begins….” This would help defining options for policy to proceed. She gives the example of human stem cell research, where “the difficulty is to differentiate between what the evidence is and also what people’s views and opinions are… sometimes [people] don’t care about the evidence, and they just have a strong belief in something. And for me that’s a really difficult interface.”

She then goes on to call for stronger science communication to diffuse the tension between scientists, policy makers and citizens. The interface between scientific evidence and policy is an area “where a lot more citizen engagement would be helpful because scientists and policy makers and, even sometimes politicians, … are a little bit removed from the actual citizens that [they] do all this for.”

She concludes: “one of the things I would really encourage is for scientists to get out and to communicate to people about the value of what we do. So to say to a citizen, what’s in it for you if we do some embryonic stem cell research, why is it that we want to do it.”

Read on about our complementary article: Do European countries need a Chief Scientific Adviser?

Featured image credit: European Commission

Anne Glover will take part of a series of sessions at the ESOF 2014 conference.


Handling uncertainties and risks in society requires all actors to cooperate

Grüne Grippeviren

Uncertainty is ubiquitous, and an inherent feature of scientific research. Scientists are therefore used to dealing with uncertainty. Those making decisions in society are much less comfortable with uncertainty since they need to be accountable to a public, who is often averse to the unknown. Things become even more complex when uncertain is associated with risks faced by society. These include health risks, associated with disease epidemics, risks associated with energy production, such as nuclear plants, as well as risks connected to technologies such as genetically modified organisms or nanotechnologies. This leads to question how modern societies can come to reasonable decisions, norms, regulations and measures to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and risk.

Evidence-base policy

In the age of uncertainty, the role of science-based knowledge is more important than ever as the basis for policy makers and citizens to come to reasonable and responsible decisions. Some researchers in science and technology studies argue we have reached an era where science is in so-called post-normal stage. There, “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent,” as Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz describe in their article entitled Science for the post-normal age.

Before making any decisions around risky situations, it is important to understand what is at stakes. “From the abundant literature on technological disasters and failures, including studies of risk analysis and policy-relevant science, [we learn] that for almost every human enterprise that intends to alter society four key questions are crucial to address: what is the purpose? who will be hurt? who benefits? and how can we know?” wrote Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, in her article Technologies of humility.

This approach “distinctly favours the precautionary principle as a norm, because that principle takes scientific uncertainty and ignorance into account in setting policies,” Jasanoff explains in an email. Others believe that this precautionary approach comes with a caveat. “Precautionary steps might be taken, but it should be clear these are temporary while more information is being gathered, and that advice will change,” says David Spiegelhalter, an expert in medical statistics and a professor for the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, UK. “Public concerns should be understood and acknowledged, but premature reassurance avoided.” Instead, “when, as is common, we cannot be confident in numerical assessments, we should acknowledge this deeper uncertainty, but tell people what they can do if they are anxious,” notes Spiegelhalter.

Dialogue about uncertainty and risk

In this context, neither scientists nor policy makers should deal with uncertainty alone, Jasanoff believes. “We have good reason to believe that wider public engagement would improve our capacity for analysis and reflection,” Jasanoff writes in email correspondence. This means that when science is in the post-normal stage, the knowledge of experts and lay persons is equally important. And public dialogue is needed in many areas such as health, safety and environmental decisions.

One step beyond uncertainty lies the notion of risks. One of the major findings of risk assessment and risk perception studies has been that “there is a gap between the expert assessment of risks in numerical terms and the perception of people with respect to the severity of these risks,” says Ortwin Renn, professor of environmental sociology and technology assessment at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Therefore it would be insufficient and counterproductive to bridge this gap by trying to educate people to correct their perceptions in the direction of the expert judgments.

He adds: “The concerns that underlie perceptions and the trade-offs between risk categories and potential benefits are important elements of risk evaluation that go beyond scientific assessment”. These crucial aspects “necessitate the input from stakeholders and the general public in a democratic decision making process”.

Communicating systemic risks

Among the many types of risks encountered in our society, a crucial kind of risk is what Renn calls “systemic risks.” These are risks that cause damage not only to the people who are taking the risk, but also effect many people because they are widely linked to them. He explains: “Systemic risks behave like viruses, because they infect also people who are healthy and resilient in general, just because they are somehow connected or interwoven with the risk source.”

He points to examples of systemic risks that are global pandemics like bird flu but also includes those in the global financial system, as the subprime crisis in 2008 showed. And, last but not least, global warming. One main characteristic of systemic risks is that they “tend to be underestimated by politicians and societies, mainly because there are lingering by nature,” Renn adds.

Systemic risks are particularly difficult to communicate since the damages that can be expected from a systemic risk are too severe to allow learning by trial and error. “Society needs to intervene before negative results become visible. This is a major challenge since it is not part of our evolutionary tradition of dealing with threats,” says Renn.

Thus, how to communicate about uncertainties and risks remains a key question, regardless of the type of risk involves—be it for the danger of new infections, environmental and or technological risks. For example, “the principles of risk and crisis communication of any outbreak situation are full transparency, communicating the science-based facts and disclosing the uncertainties,” says Karl Ekdahl, head of public health capacity and communication at European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), in Stockholm, Sweden.

Indeed, “when there is a new infection we are assessing the risks with our scientists and try to get the best picture possible of the event at the time of the assessment,” he adds. This builds the bases for the estimates on the possible risks for Europe and the populations. He recalls the example of a previous flu scare in Europe. “During the very first weeks of the last [H1N1] influenza pandemic, in 2008-2009, we received the reports of the Mexican and US cases with high death rates, mainly among young people. So we had to be very clear about what we are saying today reflects the situation and the level of knowledge, what we have right now and that this could be bypassed by events tomorrow.”

Multipartite risk governance

Most people have developed the ability for prudent judgment in the presence of uncertainties. “It is not the duty of science to reduce the amount of uncertainty and ignorance in their communication but rather to emphasise these aspects as most people can cope with uncertainty better than many scientists think,” states Renn.

So the question is how to deal with the dilemma of risks and uncertainties in modern societies? Renn proposes a governance of risk involving four sectors of society: “risk and governance for complex and ambiguous phenomena cannot be managed by corporations and regulators alone. Therefore in plural societies we need the “cooperation of the four major functional systems: the political, the economic, the scientific and the civil society sector. Each of these functional systems provide the specific virtue and function that is needed for dealing with complex risks,” argues Renn.

To do so in practical terms, he recommends an approach that is a four-fold: the economic sector provides efficient solutions, the scientific sector effective solutions, the civil society sector fairness and coherence and the political sector resilience and legitimacy. He points out: “Only if all these four factors cooperate and use their specific competence to resolve complex risk issues can we be confident that future challenges in particular with respect to systemic risks can be successfully met.”

So what can we learn from the discourse of experts on uncertainties and risk? Today’s risks discourses and public controversies are mainly focusing systemic risks such as climate, energy, health, nutrition as well as financial and informational systems. All of these shape our future, probably even more than in the past. So the fundamental question that remains is to establish how decision makers in politics, science, economy and last but not least civil society, which act as architects of our collective future, can be more responsible, more transparent and decide and act accordingly in view of such risks. On that question, the jury is still out.

Featured image credit: Sagittaria via Fotolia

Dino Trescher

Science journalist, based in Berlin, Germany, and founder of the Constart Correspondent Network

Karl Ekdahl will take part to an ESOF 2014 session entitled: The danger of new infections: what can be done to reduce the risks?

Ortwin Renn and David Spiegelhalter will participate in an ESOF 2014 session entitled: Going to jail for being a scientist? The pitfalls of communicating scientific risk assessments


Research funding gap: her excellence dwarfed by his excellence

Liisa Husu Örebro mars 2012

Promoting excellence is an explicit goal in European and national research systems. As a result, various excellence-marked initiatives have been established across Europe. However, recent empirical studies and monitoring exercises outlined below show that these excellence initiatives have been more beneficial for male than female researchers. Moreover, this applies to excellence initiatives from organisations or countries with gender equality plans and monitoring practices in place. It even applies in countries with long-term gender equality interventions backed up by political will, such as countries in the Nordic region.

Women continue to be in the minority among researchers, according to UNESCO and EU statistics. Four out of five professors in Europe are men, as are nine out of ten of the heads of European universities. It is alarming news that women researchers are losing out in excellence funding even in the systems formally in favour of gender equality. This means that there still appears to be an unspoken antagonism between gender equality, as defined in funding bodies’ policy aspirations, and the outcomes of their decisions on what they defined as excellence. In short, excellence, at least as it is currently operationalised, is creating new gendered stratifications in our research landscapes

Excellence under scrutiny

Typically, excellence initiatives aim to boost frontier research with major funding. They include national excellence initiatives, introduced, for example, in Germany, national and regional centres of excellence, networks of excellence, distinguished chairs and the equivalent. Among the most high-profile excellence initiatives in Europe is the European Research Council (ERC) endowed with €13.1 billion between 2014 and 2020, and comprising 17 % of the overall Horizon 2020 budget. Its grants are considered among the most prestigious in Europe.

The question remains: how do excellence initiatives influence gender equality developments in research? Nordic countries are of particular interest here since they are frequently rated as the leading region for societal gender equality in international comparisons. They are also knowledge-intensive societies with dynamic research policies, including centres of excellence in research.

No Nordic exception

However, a recent comparison by the Nordic Institute for Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), on gender division of leadership positions of 269 Nordic centres of excellence in 2011 found that only 12% of the centres had a female leader. These are split as follows: in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland women are leaders of 8%, 7%, 13% and 19 % of the centres respectively. These figures are notably less than the proportion of women professors in these countries.

Furthermore, a 2010 Swedish monitoring study on the national excellence programmes during the first decade of the 2000s, entitled “His excellence,” concluded that 87 % of the Swedish excellence funding had been allocated to male researchers. It also found that there was only one woman among those 20 researchers who had received the largest share of the excellence funding. This was the case in the country that has in many respects been a champion of gender equality policies in society and research.

In neighbouring Finland, a national programme called Finland Distinguished Professors (FiDiPro) was launched in 2006 to “enable distinguished researchers, both international and expatriates to work and team up with the ‘best of the best’ in Finnish academic research.

”It has been funded by the national research council, the Academy of Finland, and TEKES, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation. In the first application round in 2006, all 23 FiDiPro professorships went to male researchers. The first evaluation of the programme will be published only later this year. Only four out of the 48 Academy of Finland-funded FiDiPro professors have been awarded to women, thus far, according to senior adviser Hannele Kurki from the Academy of Finland, in Helsinki, an organisation with an advanced gender equality plan since the early 2000s.

EU perspective

The issue of gender and excellence has been raised in several reports initiated by the European Commission since the early 2000s. These include reports entitled: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality, Gender and excellence in the making, The gender challenge in research funding, Enhancing excellence, gender equality and efficiency in research and innovation.

In April 2014, the ERC itself published its own follow-up gender statistics related to grants awarded between 2007 and 2013. The ERC offers grants for different career stages: starting or consolidating grants for senior postdocs and advanced grants for senior established scholars. At both levels, women applicants had lower success rates than men in the period 2007-2013. At the starting grant level men’s success rate was 30%, women’s 25%; for advanced grants 15% for men and 13% for women.

Notably, only in one field was there no gender difference at the starting grant level: the physical and engineering sciences; a very male-dominated research area. Clear differences in success rates in favour of men were found in fields with more women such as life sciences, and human and social sciences. It is alarming that these gender differences in success rates in life sciences and human and social sciences have not decreased but rather widened during the period 2007-2013.

The above figures have been produced by the gender balance working group, which the ERC has set up to monitor gender equality in its activities. In 2010, the ERC has also endorsed a gender equality plan. It has also recently given funding for two gender monitoring studies related to its grantees and funding process. However, how the ERC will respond in practice to the recent rather alarming monitoring results on gender and success rates remains to be seen.

Time for action

Beyond the remit of the ERC, other European funding and national funding need also to be scrutinised. The 2008 EC expert report The gender challenge in research funding, which reviewed public competitive funding in 33 European countries, indicated that many funding bodies in Europe were relatively inactive and indifferent in gender equality issues.

The expert group’s recommendations for funding bodies included establishing supporting structures to monitor gender equality. These include increasing applications from women researchers, improving the gender balance among the gatekeepers of research funding—including panel members, reviewers and committee members— and gender training of those involved in funding evaluation and decision-making. It also involves collecting and publishing gender statistics, conducting in-depth monitoring by discipline and funding instrument, increasing transparency and accountability, using increasingly international evaluators, and avoiding conflicts of interest.

Most funding bodies in Europe still do not engage in such activities. If they do, and if systematic gender differences are revealed as a result of monitoring, the question remains what these organisations would then do to change their policy and practice.

Liisa Husu

Professor of gender studies, and co-director, GEXcel International Collegium for Advanced Transdisciplinary Gender Studies, Örebro University, Sweden

Liisa Husu will take part to a session at the ESOF 2014 conference entitled: Women in science: mind the gap!

Featured image credit: Ulla-Carin Ekblom


Jean-Patrick Connerade: Science meets poetry, with a Danish flavour


Jean-Patrick Connerade, is emeritus professor of physics at Imperial College London, UK, and the president of the European Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters (EASAL). He is also a poet in his own right, writing in French, under the pen name of Chaunes. He is also a former president of EuroScience.

To many, science would seem the very opposite of poetry, being born of reason and rational deduction, whereas a poem appears as the fruit of imagination. Amongst all literary forms, poetry is the one most likely to be associated with the irrational. This could perhaps explain the hidden tension which has driven so many scientists, from Omar Khayyam to Robert Oppenheimer and from William Hamilton to Marie Curie to write poetry. And why so many poets, from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe, from Gérard de Nerval to Primo Levi, have written poems inspired by science or by scientific themes.

In fact, Science and Poetry form a little understood harmony. They are connected examples of human creativity, much like the Ying and the Yang of Chinese philosophy. Mysteriously, they emerge as opposite or opposing facets of the same quest for truth and for perfection.

Since the second ESOF 2014 conference, held in Munich in 2006, poets and scientists have gathered to explore this fundamental connection. Some of the poets attending are renowned simply for their poetry, while others are also well-known scientists. Jean-Patrick Connerade organises a session unique to ESOF, entitled: Science meets Poetry IV: Danish connections.

In this exclusive interview to the EuroScientist, Jean-Patrick Connerade talks about the connection between science and poetry and beyond.

Connerade explains the reason for bringing poetry in a conference dedicated to science and policy. “Science is part of the culture in general, it is part of, what we might call the humanist tradition,” he says, “For some strange reason, science has drifted slightly from that humanist tradition. I think because of the very strong specialisation in science.”

He also makes the connection with poetry. “The poets in some sense are very close to the first questions which scientists ask themselves, which is about understanding the world. That’s what poets also try to do but they do so in a different perspective.”

This Science meets Poetry session is a chance to find out about contemporary poetry in its developing relationship to science and scientists. As part of the session, the panellists will explore Danish themes, including Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s forgotten life as a poet, and how it worked its way into Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. “There is a Danish connection running through much of European poetry, just as it runs through European physics. . . So it is in fact an extremely rich subject this connection with Denmark,” Connerade explains.

He then talks about the kind of skills from the humanities that could be included in the training of scientists. “Employers who recruit PhDs are complaining that they actually don’t know enough about expressing their thoughts, in a way which is intelligible perhaps to… the man in the street. Indeed some of these employers have been saying that universities should be able to teach them something about that. So it sounds as though PhD training, as it is, is not entirely successful in that area.”

He also talks about the first ambition that this session has to “attempt to restore the humanist connection between science and poetry, which has always existed in the past, and which has simply been forgotten.”

He goes on to describe the second ambition of such session, which is “to make scientists and the public alike aware of poetry today and the poets aware of science. . . It is possible for these two areas of knowledge to drift apart and to do so in a way that they function…in a closed world without knowing about each other… We think it is good for both to bring them together…We obviously want the public to understand that scientists are open to poetry. We have a number of scientists who are poets…. And the second aspect of that, of course, is that there are poets interested in science.”

Featured image credit: Jean-Patrick Connerade


Research funding: trust, freedom and long-term vision pay off

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A recipe for how to stimulate breakthrough research would include the following ingredients: long-term commitments, large flexible grants, trust, and the funding body’s continuing interest in the research. This is precisely the approach that the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF) has adopted with its ‘Centres of Excellence’ concept, over the past 22 years. In short, the DNRF provides the very best researchers with sufficient and flexible base funding that Danish universities are not in a position to provide. This is, in reality, not much different from what the ETH in Switzerland and other top universities do.

The foundation’s core activity is to fund frontline research in highly creative environments. By recognising and trusting the talent of top researchers, the foundation expects them to deliver potentially ground breaking results. And, in the process, the foundation hopes that this strategy will boost the international competitiveness and impact of Danish research. Each time there is a new call for bids to create a new Centre of Excellence all research fields are eligible for funding.

Excellence, independence and flexibility

The foundation also ensures that all of its procedures are transparent throughout the application process. These procedures are driven only by criteria that seek out excellence. The selection of new centres is accomplished by a small board of trustees composed of internationally recognised researchers.

Compared with many public funding agencies in Europe, the DNRF’s stands out in the way it is managed. Its strengths are supported by three pillars. First, the foundation is a truly independent body established by an act of the Danish Parliament in 1991. As such, it has been able to focus on curiosity-driven research and to remain free from political influences.

Second, the DNRF’s activities do not depend on annual appropriation bills. The foundation has its own capital, which it invests in its Centers of Excellence. Third, the large, long-term and flexible funding, of up to 10 years per centre, ensures that researchers have a sustainable funding source. Therefore, they can address daring research questions with limited funding risk. They can also quickly adapt to new research questions in well-equipped and coherent research environments.

Recognised funding approach

DNRF’s achievements have been recognised by independent experts. In 2013, the Danish Minister of Science had the foundation evaluated by an international panel headed by Wilhelm Krull, general secretary of the German Volkswagen Foundation. The panel concluded: “One of the success factors is the DNRF strategy to focus on outstanding talents, to provide them with sufficient funds, a long term funding perspective and to grant a far-reaching autonomy with respect to the research agenda and the use of its funds. This enables researchers to venture into novel and often risky projects which may eventually lead to ground breaking results.”

As a past leader of a DNRF-supported Centre of Excellence, I recognise many of the strengths noted by the international evaluation panel. Our sense of having developed a very efficient and successful mode of supporting research has now been backed by substantial numerical evidence during this evaluation process.

Part of that evidence is backed up by the comprehensive bibliometric analysis that was conducted as part of the evaluation exercise.

This analysis demonstrates in different ways that the impact and quality of the research conducted in the centres is high. Furthermore, we see that the DNRF centres can compete with the very best research institutions in the world, including Stanford and MIT, when it comes to the impact of articles published in prestigious multidisciplinary journals such as Science, Nature and PNAS.

DNRF funding model Thomas Sinkjær FINAL

In addition, the commercialisation statistics for Danish research in 2007-2012 showed that approximately 15% of all spin-off companies and approximately 15% of all patent applications submitted from a public research institution came from a DNRF Center of Excellence. These numbers exceed the share one would expect when one considers that the DNRF allocates approximately 2% of all public research funds. This demonstrates a substantial potential for the application of research results, even though the foundation does not make this a criterion when selecting new centers or extending existing ones.

Thomas Sinkjær

Director of the Danish National Research Foundation, Copenhagen, Denmark.

This is a post sponsored by ESOF 2014. The example of the DNRF will be discussed as part of a session entitled “Academic leadership: what does it take?” at the ESOF 2014 conference. Session participants will discuss the challenges and inherent conflicts of academic leadership, including dilemmas such as management vs. leadership, creativity vs. risk aversion, specific vs. interdisciplinary, competition vs. collaboration, curiosity vs. strategic research, and independence vs. accountability.


Economic models: ever evolving target for adequate policy making

Graph With Stacks Of Coins

The inability to predict the financial crisis has raised a debate on an important toolkit of economists: economic models. How reliable and useful are they? To what extent can policy makers rely on model analyses in forming policies? And to what extent, can they be used, for example, for science policy to ensure most effective allocation of limited funding resources?

An economic model is a mathematical representation of the economy. There are many models differing in specific assumptions and the specific purpose of the model use. Different types of models are called for when, for example, making short-term forecasts or analysing the long-term consequences of ageing.

Economics deals with complex interdependencies and interactions between numerous decision makers. A model is a way of keeping track of these. Making these elements explicit has the advantage of ensuring consistency in the assumptions made, and it enforces discipline. This is important in its own right. But it also makes it possible for outside observers to assess the ingredients build into a given model.

A primary purpose of a model analysis is to gain insights and quantification of the likes of macroeconomic development but also the effects of more specific interventions like tax reforms or R&D funding. Insights are obtained by assessing the role of various assumptions made for the outcome. Model builders spend much time on such exercises to understand their tool-kit. Quantification is essential to assess the impacts and consequences of policy changes.

Empirical validation of models is essential. Are the specific structures and assumptions made consistent with available empirical evidence? This is an ongoing process within the profession. Evidence is accumulated, theories are tested, and models are reformulated.

Leaving aside the thorny question of statistical issues in model validation, one crucial caveat should be noted. Empirical validation is inevitably backward-looking depending on historical data. This is important information, but it misses new events like a financial crisis. This is why theoretical modelling is important to explore possible events which have not been observed historically. This is an ongoing process within the profession with progresses, but also shortcomings.

A case in point is the financial crisis. Mainstream models of the business cycle neglected financial factors, not that they were unimportant, but they were seen as an add-on not in itself a source problems and business cycles. The financial crisis has induced intensive research activity trying to resurrect the role of financial factors.

The outcomes of model analyses are inherently uncertain. Model builders and users are very well aware of such limitation. When the media report that model forecasts for, say , output growth next year are 2 %, the model analysis may say that with 95% certainty the growth rate will be between say 1.5% and 2.5 %. The best point estimate is 2%, but it is uncertain. This kind of uncertainty is difficult to communicate. And the media abstain from doing so, demanding clear-cut and simple messages. In this sense, model outcomes are often misused or over-interpreted.

Policy makers often find that model analyses of policy proposals are a straightjacket. But that is precisely their purpose. Policies should be based on careful assessments and evaluation. And not just beliefs. This is not implying that models are perfect – they are not. They must constantly be up-dated and reformulated to capture the ongoing changes in society. In that sense a good model is a moving target.

Torben Andersen, professor economics at the department of economics and business, Aarhus University, Denmark.

This is a post sponsored by ESOF 2014. The role of economic modelling will be discussed during a session entitled ‘Fiscal austerity and growth: what does science say?’ at the ESOF 2014 conference, due to be held in between 21st and 26th June in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Ten Keegardin


Does media coverage of research misconduct affect public confidence in science?


The SOM (Society Opinion Media) Institute at the University of Gothenburg conducts annual surveys of the Swedish public. It explores, among other things, media consumption, confidence in societal institutions and different professional groups. Since 2002, an independent and influential Swedish non-profit membership organisation that works to promote dialogue and openness between researchers and the public called Vetenskap & Allmänhet—which stands for Public and Science—has added a section to the SOM survey to study public confidence in science and scientists.

The first study, which examines the hypothesis that media reports of research misconduct will have an impact on public confidence in science and scientists, has been performed in cooperation with the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.

This study involves comparing the SOM survey results to the number of articles on research misconduct published between 2002 and 2013. Media included in the study are the nine largest Swedish newspapers, including four tabloids, and a news programme on Swedish public service TV.

A total of 356 news reports on research misconduct were coded for the period 1 January 2002 to 31 December 2013. There is a large fluctuation in the number of published news items on research misconduct from one year to the next. And, in general, the number does not seem to be on the rise. If anything, there has been a slight decrease in the number of research misconduct articles during the last two years of the study. Only 16 % of the articles were published by tabloids.

Medical research is by far the most frequently reported area for research misconduct; more than half of all published articles concern this field of research. As medical research is an area of high public interest and concern, misconduct within this discipline may generally be considered more newsworthy than misconduct in other research areas.

When comparing the number of published articles on research misconduct with public confidence in science and scientists, the increased reporting of misconduct in medical research during 2005 and 2008 appears to correspond to decreased public confidence in medical science and scientists (see Figure below).

Correlation between number of media reports on research misconduct, and public confidence in science and scientists (numbers and percentage, respectively, on the y-axis).

A similar pattern can be seen for the humanities in 2005 and to a certain extent for the social sciences in 2005 and possibly also in 2011; for technical reasons, the confidence data of the latter year may not be entirely reliable, and should thus be interpreted with caution.

The study also implies a strong relationship between media consumption and confidence in science and scientists. Regular readers of a morning paper–who read it at least three days per week–have more confidence in science and scientists than those who do not read a morning paper on a regular basis.

The data of the study is currently being analysed in more detail. The results will be presented and discussed during a session named Fifty Shades of Deceit – transparency, accountability and public perception of research misconduct at ESOF 2014.

Fredrik Brounéus, Project and Communications Manager, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Karin Larsdotter, Research and Project Manager, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Ulrika Andersson, Research Administrator at the SOM Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Maria Lindholm, Director of Research, Vetenskap & Allmänhet, Stockholm, Sweden.

Featured image credit: puckillustrations via Fotolia


Nicholas Steneck: the pressures making scientists go off-piste

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Nicholas Steneck is director of the Research Ethics and Integrity Program of the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research and professor emeritus of history at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, USA. He is also a consultant to the US Government Federal Office of Research Integrity, HHS.

He has published articles on the history of research misconduct policy, responsible conduct of research instruction, the use of animals in research, classified research and academic freedom, the role of values in university research, and research on research integrity. Most recently, he authored the ORI Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research.

In this exclusive interview to the EuroScientist, he shares his views on the pressures that influence scientists in failing to observe the strictest ethical code of conduct.

“There is much more attention to integrity in research today than there was 15 or 20 years ago,” he says,”and therefore, people are more aware of the problems that exist so that the things that might have been common and gone on in the past and nobody paid attention to, such as questionable authorship practices or bad data interpretation practices, the sort of tings that, kind of, went and passed unnoticed are now being picked up. These things look worse because we are looking more carefully. Whether researchers are behaving with less integrity, I don’t know.”

He refers specifically to the main types of pressures that scientists are being subjected to.

“There are two pressures that I would point to. One is the pressure to publish….the more you publish, the more recognition you get, and therefore presumably, more rewards. So the enormous pressure to publish, particularly on young researchers, is one of the pressures that causes them to chop papers into small pieces, to stretch the data and so on and so forth.”

He adds: ” The second one, for the established researchers, is the pressure to get funding. Funding is tighter today. More and more universities require researchers to bring in funding. The more funding they bring in, the more successful they are…. the pressure to publish and the pressure to get funding is what drives researchers to cut corners …”

Regarding the standards of ethics that might have become looser, he points to the lack of rigour.

During peer review, for example, “there is no a lot of rigour in many areas in looking at the statistical analysis, the quality of the data, there is so much to look at, reviewers cannot look at the data to see whether the data supports what is going on.” He adds: “The kind of stresses that have researchers doing many different things are the things that causes them to look less rigorously at what is going on”.

One example is that scientists ” rely on the abstract, rather than reading at the entire paper. That is not until you read the entire paper that you actually look at the data, the interpretation and so on… Abstract are not accurate, abstract oversell articles. And yet we don’t have the time to go ahead and read everything the details and analyse the data. That’s where the rigour is breaking down, simply because of the stresses on researchers.”

In addition, he mentions the emergence of scam research papers, which are not peer reviewed.

He also refers to the fact that the peer review process is increasingly computerised, which makes it possible for researchers to infiltrate the review process and create their own review. “It is just a variety of specific ways in which the internet has loosened things up a little bit and makes it harder to control good quality research.” However, ” what is happening today, more and more countries are putting in regulations.”

To avoid such issues, he recommends introducing training to “teach new researchers about their responsibilities and about the pressures they are gonna face.” He also calls upon research leaders to stand up and promote the need for research integrity.

This is a post sponsored by ESOF 2014. Nicholas Steneck will share his views as part of a discussion at the ESOF 2014 conference, to be held in Copenhagen from 21 to 26 June 2014. Specifically, he is invited to speak at a session entitled ‘Fifty shades of deceit – key tools and processes for maintaining the integrity of the scientific record.’

Featured image credit: Nicholas Steneck

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