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As science and innovation minister looks to further enhance policy he's no doubt well aware any changes will have to be kiwi-centric.

It is not geographically, economically or culturally feasible to wholesale adopt what’s worked in other countries and jury-rig it for us.

This is one reason to be wary when overseas experts and delegations, or NZ visits to such countries such as Israel, Denmark or Singapore declare ‘this is the way we should do it’.

However, a recent visit by the President of the European Research Council (ERC) will give Joyce some food for thought. An excellent overview of the ERC’s role is here, via Wikipedia.

Prof Helga Nowotny was a keynote speaker at the inaugural Asia Pacific Science Policy Studies Research Conference in Wellington on 8-10 February.

She also took part in a Science Media Centre telephone conference briefing before her address (find podcast here).

Among some of Nowotny’s comments about the effect and role of the ERC (whose website banner headline states: ‘Supporting top researchers from anywhere in the world’), was that even though it is only five years old, such has been its positive effect, it will receive even more than the $8 billion Euros of its 2007-2012 budget in its second term.

Across the 27 EU member states, almost 3% of GDP is spent on R&D.

The ERC’s main role is to carry out ‘Frontier Research’ – somewhere between the known and unknown. “We believe in the usefulness of useless knowledge” she says. In other words, big picture stuff. Individual countries still carry out their own R&D as well.

The interesting thing about the allocation of ERC funding, split 17% on social science, 47% on physics/engineering and the rest on life sciences, is that the sole criteria is the scientific excellence of a proposal put forward by an individual.

The individual (or Principal Investigator) within a smart specialisation will have a team of a half-dozen or so PhD students.

There’s enough funding for the team for a decent time period – a bit like the Marsden Fund, but on super-steriods.

A smaller pot of money is available for Proof-of-Concept funding – a bridge between research and the earliest stage of innovation. This stage looks at IP rights, how much something will cost to develop, “a package to help move ideas and results to innovation”.

The interesting thing about this is that it most often is another member of an original Frontier Research team other than the PI, who is invited to pitch.

Only half these pitches are provided with ERC money to develop up a product/service. However, such is the cache/mana of those invited to pitch, those that miss out on ERC funding invariably are invited and funded by individual EU member countries to continue the innovation.

“Yes, we have an economic crisis,” says Nowotny. “But it is also clear in policy making and the general public, that we have to invest in innovation. There’s no other way we’re going to achieve levels of prosperity that we desire.”

The ERC’s approach of backing individuals, obviously highly talented scientists, feels intuitively right.

It also trains up the next coterie of young researchers, and is self-selecting in that the ones to develop a proof of concept, and presumably business person, comes from within the original Frontier Research group.

The Financial Times rated Prof Helga Nowotny as one of their most influential women of 2011 in the field of science and technology.

Steven Joyce, who at the same Science Policy Studies conference said that following a (wet Auckland!) summer recess of lots of reading, is yet to lay out all his S&I oriented thinking,

As he pulls together multiple threads, Nowotny’s visit may possibly be inspired timing and tailor-made for the kiwi psyche.


There's already a few Kiwis involved in ERC sponsored research in Europe. Individual NZ teams are as welcome as the rest of the world's scientists to bid for a Frontier Research grant. You never know, what might be considered useless knowledge in NZ, could be just the ticket on the continent!

Europe’s big picture research funding backs individual, not institution

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