Funding “blue-sky” research can be a relatively hard sell in a world consumed by crises, but focusing on solely economic output from research could limit our ability to face future problems, according to Prof Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council (ERC), who visited Ireland recently. We ignore fundamental research at our peril.
The ERC, which has been putting the funding into fundamental science since 2007, has supported 167 projects in Ireland up to mid-2022. Current projects include exploring how heavy elements are forged when neutron stars collide (Prof Pádraig Dunne at University College Dublin); how plant traits have made our planet habitable over the last 300 million years (Prof Jennifer McElwain at Trinity College Dublin) and how microbes in the gut communicate with the developing brain (Dr María Rodriguez Aburto at University College Cork).
It’s important to give researchers the freedom and resources to dig into such fundamental questions that may have no immediate utilitarian output, says Leptin, because we can’t predict exactly what answers might help us in the future.
Problems and solutions
“We don’t know what society and the economy will need next year or in 10 years,” says Leptin. “If we look at history, we can see that a lot of fundamental, curiosity-driven research has yielded important results, and one of the most recent examples is vaccines for Covid-19. When the fundamental research that underpinned those vaccine developments was done initially, nobody dreamed that it might have such an outcome, and [the vaccines] could not have happened as quickly as they did had that research not been done.”
[ Materials developed at DCU to be launched to moon to study how dust sticks to surfaces ]
Blue-sky research can also complement problem-oriented research, which has a defined or applied benefit to the economy or society, Leptin notes.
“Problem-oriented research is extremely important, and we must be grateful that politicians see that dealing with grand challenges requires research,” she says. “But we need the basic research to help solve the problems – we can’t deal with climate change if we don’t know what happens in climate, we can’t deal with diseases unless we know how diseases work.”
Leptin also celebrates a quest for knowledge as inspiration. As a cell biologist, her own research has been driven by interesting questions – including a project on why zebrafish are resilient to the bacteria that cause tuberculosis – and she believes people generally love to hear about discoveries. “Human curiosity is a wonderful thing,” she says.
Diversity and success
The ERC is one of a number of funding sources available to researchers in Ireland for fundamental or curiosity-inspired research in the sciences and humanities. A big advantage of ERC funding is the amount and timespan of the support – including starter grants of €1.5 million for up to five years and group-based synergy grants of up to €14 million over six years.
The rigour of the selection process means that ERC grants are difficult to land – in Ireland around 8 per cent of applicants get funding. Awardees in science have included Prof Aoife McLysaght for research into molecular evolution, Prof Laoise McNamara to better understand how mechanical forces affect bones, Prof Emma Teeling for work on how bats age, Prof Valeria Nicolosi for energy-storage materials research and immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill, who joins the ERC’s Scientific Research Council at the start of 2023.
Since 2007, the ERC has provided around €257 million in funding in Ireland, compared with around €4.1 billion for the same period in the UK and €3.75 billion for Germany. So what’s the key to Ireland winning more ERC funding, beyond the requirement for scientific excellence? Leptin believes attracting more international researchers to Ireland is a good start. “International connections bring inspiration, more knowledge and more communication,” she says.
Prof Orla Feely, vice-president for research, innovation and impact at UCD, agrees Ireland needs to be an attractive environment – both inside and outside of work – to encourage researchers to relocate here. “We need to be able to provide ambitious researchers with the opportunities to deliver on their research plans in Ireland at every stage of their careers,” says Feely, who hosted Leptin at an event in the Museum of Literature Ireland to meet more than 20 ERC grantees.
“When I came into the room, the atmosphere, the enthusiasm and the liveliness was wonderful,” says Leptin, who was struck by the number of early-stage researchers who were women. “We are not doing too badly in that generation, in that the proportion of ERC applicants and grantees who are women is going up. We see that less so among the more advanced cohorts though, they need to make their way through the echelons.”
While there is much awareness now around gender inclusion in research, we need to increase the diversity of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds too, Leptin adds. “The hurdles probably start in primary school, and then there are issues of unfairness when it comes to paying for higher education,” she says. “Politics needs to do something about this. We also need to engage people more broadly, particularly at a young age, about what research and evidence are, and how scientific processes work.”
Move the dial
A year into her presidency of the ERC, Leptin is keen to move the dial in research funding to match the real-world needs and skills of today’s researchers. In a speech at the Higher Education Futures Conference at the Royal Irish Academy, she spoke about the importance of reforming how we assess research and value its impact, and she stresses the need for more investment into research and development in Europe. “In 2000, the EU set a goal to raise the R&D investment to 3 per cent of GDP, but two decades later we are barely above 2 per cent, and we are lagging behind the investment seen in USA and China.”
Leptin believes directing more funding towards the kind of research supported by the ERC would be to Europe’s benefit. “There is a cohort of projects that do not get funded by us, but who are highly judged,” she says. “Europe would do extremely well if we had the resources to fund them.”
And Leptin’s wish for 2023? “A broad appreciation of the value of fundamental science and the inspiration that it is based on, and that it provides.”
High-risk high-gain research is the bee’s knees for healing
When Professor Fergal O’Brien started out in his research career, he had a big aim: to develop a new material that could be placed on injured bone or in ailing joints such as knees and hips and help them to heal. It was a risky goal, in that there was no guarantee the idea would work, but he was determined to try.
He became one of the first researchers in Ireland to win European Research Council (ERC) funding, and the effort paid off. His lab at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences developed materials that act as a scaffold to encourage and support healing of bone and cartilage. Their research showed that the material was safe to use in humans and it sped up healing in injured racehorses, and the technology has been licensed to English company Locate Bio for orthopaedic use.
Today, as RCSI’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation, O’Brien sees ERC awards increasingly as the benchmark of scientific excellence in Europe. “They give talented researchers with a competitive idea for high-risk and high-gain research the opportunity to produce high impact outcomes,” he says. “They do this by providing not just a significant scale of funding, but also the freedom to pursue risky frontier research that might not be supported by other agencies.”
[ Genetic causes of bone tumours discovered in 1,000-year-old Irish skeletons ]
In Ireland, bioengineering research has benefited from numerous ERC awards, O’Brien points out, and recently RCSI researcher and consultant respiratory physician Prof Killian Hurley won a starting ERC grant of €1.5 million to address a life-threatening lung condition called pulmonary fibrosis.
Hurley will focus on mRNA medications specifically designed for individual patients and tested using “lung-in-a-dish” set-ups grown from stem cells in the lab, to measure their effectiveness and potential side effects before they are given to patients. “We’re delighted with Killian’s award,” O’Brien adds. “He is hopefully the first of a number of our clinicians to win one.”