the quality of research in Flanders is very high”

Where does the money for scientific research go? Elisabeth Monard and Dirk Van Dyck from the Royal Flemish Academy of Sciences and Arts (KVAB) explain.

Scientific research is necessary for the prosperity and well-being of our society, for the formation of our future intelligentsia and knowledge workers, as the first decisive link in the innovation chain, for the knowledge increase necessary to tackle global societal challenges and for our cultural enrichment.

The OECD defines research and development (R&D) as “the creative work carried out in a systematic way with the aim of expanding the available knowledge (including knowledge about people, culture and society) and/or using it to develop new applications. design’ Depending on the nature of the activities, one speaks of basic research, applied research and experimental development.

Driven by his scientific curiosity, the researcher decides which direction his research should take, this is the non-directed research. Targeted research pursues an economic or social finality. Who takes the initiative or carries out the research is only of secondary importance. A good balance between both systems, with their financial resources, guarantees the best result.

In the current research landscape, basic research and applied research are closely related and enrich each other. The very rapid development and production of covid vaccines was only possible through many years of research work by many fundamental scientists.

The role of universities

Universities play a crucial role in the Flemish scientific domain. They are the growth engines for the social, cultural and economic development of a modern society. Universities develop ideas and knowledge, and also, and very importantly, train new generations of students to be the bearers of the knowledge society of the future. A strong connection between education and research is essential for this.

Since 1993, the Flemish government has chosen to invest in R&D as a priority and to distribute resources equally between non-targeted and targeted research. In order to match the quality and quantity of scientific research in Flanders with the top regions in Europe, the Flemish government decided to divide the research resources through competition as well as by using performance parameters. As evidenced by the high scores in international comparisons regarding scientific results and the fact that Flanders has achieved the status of innovation leader in Europe in 2021, the funding strategy has largely achieved this original goal.

The Lisbon Strategy

In 2000, the Flemish Science Policy Council (VRWB, today VARIO) launched the idea of ​​a European standard for R&D linked to the gross domestic product. The European Commission took this up and made it a goal two years later in the implementation of the Lisbon strategy, which aimed to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. The Flemish government approved the European Lisbon strategy and committed to invest 3% of gross domestic product in research and development by 2020. 1% would be subscribed by the government and 2% by companies.

This goal was achieved. In 2019, Flanders reached a total R&D intensity of 3.35% of GDP or 9.3 billion euros, of which 45% is non-targeted and 55% is focused research. The companies’ R&D expenditure is based for 4% on subsidies, 14.5% on tax support and 81.5% on own company resources. The total R&D staff in Flanders is more than 61,000 people. In 2020, the R&D budget increased further to 3.6% of GDP or 9.6 billion euros, of which 2.7% came from companies and 0.9% from the public sector. This places Flanders in the global top five of the world’s best in terms of R&D spending. In terms of achieving the 1% public share, the government will have to step up a gear.

Successive Flemish governments have always explicitly chosen to allocate resources for R&D mainly on the basis of competitiveness and expertise. This Flemish policy has clearly borne fruit. The quality of research in Flanders is very high. Flemish researchers publish internationally at a high level, they are highly visible, and they often collaborate internationally with colleagues from abroad. Flemish researchers can compete internationally, which is also evident from the high success rate in European funding channels, such as the European Research Council.

Research at the universities that pushes the boundaries of knowledge

The government plays a decisive role in the funding of research at the universities: through the universities’ basic funding, through the special research fund grants, through the business research funds and through the FWO. With the exception of the FWO, the research funds are distributed mainly to the universities on the basis of performance criteria, but within a closed overall budget. Performance parameters measure the quantity and quality of research based on the number and impact of scientific publications, the number of citations and the number of doctorates. Performance funding has been an important stimulus to promote high-quality research at universities.

For funding of research projects and mandates, university researchers can also contact the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). The submitted applications are evaluated per discipline via external peer review and by a panel of ten experts, the majority of whom come from abroad.

A whole series of good measures were also initiated to stimulate excellent research, such as increased intake of researchers, more postdoctoral mandates, establishment of Tenure Track, BOF-ZAP mandates and excellence programs, such as the Brain-Gain program Odysseus. , the Methuselah program for long-term research projects (7 years), the special program (formerly Hercules) for infrastructure (heavy and medium).

Results funding has undeniably given an important boost to university research. However, the performance-based model has its limits, and negative effects on researcher-driven research are inevitable. An unintended consequence of the introduction of this allocation model is that some universities have applied this allocation key to their own sections, from groups, to faculties and departments, sometimes even to the level of individual researchers. However, the latter is detrimental to a healthy research ecology. Extending the performance parameters of the financial macro-distribution model to the micro-levels within universities, however well-intentioned, is inconsistent with the essence and inner workings of a university. Such management-driven funding presupposes that easily measurable effects of scientific research are a goal in themselves, and that scientific research is a kind of ‘one size fits all’, to which the professors must conform. However, parameters such as publication behavior and the number of doctorates differ from discipline to discipline. Fortunately, the universities are aware of this, and this policy is being adjusted.

Companies can approach VLAIO to finance R&D. Projects are evaluated and selected by experts on the basis of scientific quality and valorization potential. The companies are expected to contribute approx. 50% (less for SMEs) of their own resources. An important part of the private R&D funding comes from foreign companies.

The spearhead clusters are a unique Flemish model for cooperation between companies and universities in a number of domains.

Important actors for research and valorization are the strategic research centers (SOCs), which receive stable co-financing based on performance criteria. Especially VIB (Flandish Institute for Biotechnology) and IMEC (independent research center for micro- and later nanoelectronics.) have a great international reputation.

Read all other contributions from our summer series here The thinkers from Knack.be: Where should we go with our money?

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