Structural funding gap for fundamental research at the FWO threatens Flemish knowledge society

September 21, 2016

The entire Flemish research community is sounding the alarm bell: the Fonds voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO – Foundation for Scientific Research) is facing a structural funding gap for financing fundamental scientific research. As a result, our Flemish knowledge society is under serious threat.  Investing in human capital and the accumulation of knowledge is the key to finding solutions to major issues such as sustainable energy consumption, climate change, and ageing populations, etc. If urgent action is not taken, Flanders risks falling hopelessly behind, with a reduction in our knowledge potential as a consequence. The Flemish government urgently needs to nail its colours to the mast. Is there a desire to adopt a sustainable policy with regard to our knowledge potential – which after all is one of our most valuable assets – or not?

Scientists are not accustomed to bringing their fight out into the open, but the dire situation in which we find ourselves has forced us to issue this distress call.

The sticking points include the chances of success for research projects and individual research mandates at the FWO. This institution is the only funding source and as such the engine behind fundamental scientific research in Flanders, but in recent years there has been a sharp decline in the success rates for research projects and individual research scholarships. At present only 15% of the requested budget for research projects is being financed. This is an historic low point. Yet research projects and mandates are crucial cornerstones in support of fundamental scientific research. They provide support for excellent research teams, enabling them to participate internationally at the top level in a broad range of disciplines. Ideally, success rates should be 33%. This would guarantee a sufficiently rigorous selection process, whilst not discouraging applicants.
Unfortunately, such rates are the things dreams are made of: at the current 15%, we fall far below the envisaged target. Because of the low budget, the FWO is often unable to finance awarded research projects in their entirety. Drastic budget cuts to estimated costs for the majority of projects are a considerable obstacle to the prospective research, with the result that Flemish scientists frequently have to make do with a budget that is half that of their colleagues in other countries. In this climate, staying in Flanders is no longer an attractive option for our top Flemish scientists.
In 2015 the number of project applications doubled compared with 2005, while the available budgets barely increased in the same period. The total number of professors has not risen significantly in the last decade, although they are still extremely active in research. As a result, researchers in Flanders score very highly in top international rankings. The pressure on research funds is expected to continue to rise as a consequence of the growing number of degree programmes, knowledge institutes and organisations that can apply for funding from the FWO. The Flemish government is to be congratulated for investing in a growth path for professors. But without extra funds these new professors simply won’t be able to carry out their research.

The situation is now a disaster, and is especially demotivating not only for applicants but also for the reviewers. The current system is a textbook example of bad time management. Applicants invest several weeks in writing projects that have little chance of being funded. The great majority of project applications are then meticulously screened by an army of professors and international experts. They too come to the conclusion, after a lot of work, that even projects with top scores will not be financed, because there is a structural budget deficit. Frustration all round among applicants and reviewers. Would it not be better if the researcher could spend his time conducting the actual research?

In its coalition agreement the Flemish government expressed the ambition to reach the European 3% norm for Research and Development by 2020. A third of this would consist directly of public financing, the so-called 1% target. A growth path was outlined, but the Treasury estimated that in addition to the anticipated extra R&D budget an additional tranche of 389 million euros would be needed to reach the 1% norm by 2020. In addition, the Flemish government became aware of the problem concerning the low success rates and discussed solving the problem in one of its policy documents. However, not a single solution or potential trajectory has been put forward to address the problem. There is a justified fear that we will continue to muddle along until it is finally too late!

The importance of fundamental research should not be underestimated. Our daily environment is littered with discoveries that have emerged from scientific research. Take, for example, the World Wide Web, which was born of research in fundamental particle physics, and is now an integral part of our daily life. Flanders has the potential to compete at the highest level. The figures speak for themselves: our research is increasingly cited, we bring in prestigious European research grants, our ground-breaking curiosity driven research results in more and more patent applications, many of which are marketed. The claim that curiosity driven research has no economic relevance is plainly wrong. Is it socially responsible to stifle the innovations of our scientists and jeopardise our future well-being?

It takes some courage to go the extra mile in fundamental research during times of austerity. But all the statistics speak for themselves: countries and regions that have fully committed to research and innovation even during a crisis, are now in a much better position as far as economic growth is concerned.

The clock is ticking and it is high time that we break out of the negative spiral that we’ve been trapped in for so many years. The research community has long been justifiably concerned about this untenable situation. We therefore hope that our distress call will not fall on deaf ears.

Scientists for a stronger FWO, represented by:

Annemie Bogaerts - UAntwerpen

Johan Hofkens – KULeuven

Alexander Sevrin - VUB

Marlies Van Bael - UHasselt

Veronique Van Speybroeck – UGent

September 21, 2016