APPsolutely FABulous?

‘Lab-Fab-App’ – the Lamy Report’s title is peculiarly out of sync with its main message: the critical importance of research and innovation for the future of Europe. And a title that will do little to endear it to social media users ‘in the hood’ shows at a glance that bringing science closer to the citizen is not as easy as it appears.

The Lamy Report advocates for a doubling of the H2020 budget. It underlines the importance of universities in the innovation ecosystem, and it gives welcome support to the European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). It also supports mission-driven research framed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, recognising that they need leadership from all parts of the disciplinary spectrum. All this is extremely welcome, and echoes some of the Guild’s core demands for FP9.

Other proposals will need much further debate. The emphasis on connecting research and education more closely is something the Guild has called for since its (admittedly young) existence. Yet, the report assumes that research-led education is currently wanting, that European universities need ‘urgent renewal’ and that universities are simply not providing the skills needed by tomorrow’s graduates. But on what evidence are these assumptions based? And while it is easy to see that we need to find ways to improve transferrable skills amongst our graduates, surely these cannot be reduced to entrepreneurship? What about competences in languages and intercultural skills, competences that have been provided successfully by universities, not least in partnership with the European Union?

So, let’s discuss how we can continue to improve education – but do we need a ‘fundamental reform’ of education? Universities need to modernise, to be sure: but while states, economic systems and social orders have come and gone, universities have evolved with remarkable success for over 900 years. Commissioner Moedas emphasised, on 3 July, that we also need to recognise what we do well in Europe – our universities are surely part of that success story!

Perhaps the Report’s most intriguing passages relate to how science should connect more closely to the citizen. I don’t know many researchers who do not want the results of their work to be circulated as widely as possible, and many – not least in the Social Sciences and Humanities – work very closely with citizens to enhance their research. But is social media really an appropriate tool for co-designing calls for proposals? How many ‘likes’ would the Theory of Relativity have received? The Lamy Report references the ‘g1000’ initiative (www.g1000.org), but the ‘results’ posted on the website will hardly be news to any social scientist working on this area. Universities, scientists and funders alike must find new avenues of communication, dissemination and impact; but scientific populism will be counterproductive.

To my mind, the Report’s most important omission relates to the importance of facts and truth-seeking; in an increasingly complex world, this can no longer be taken for granted. This is the core of what research and innovation are about, and this is, at the most fundamental level, why we need to produce more knowledge. What we need is an affirmation of rational argument, facts, and mutual understanding and respect as the very foundation of public life, of citizenship. New knowledge is thus integral to citizens’ science, and vice versa. The Lamy Report holds that innovation must be linked to every funding line in FP9. However, new knowledge and rational argument as the essence of our social and political fabric are surely as important as an end. And so, we need research and education not just to promote innovation, as important as this is. We must be more ambitious still: we need research and education to ensure our citizens lead good, just and content lives, upholding the very values that the EU has been founded upon.

Published July 3, 2017 11:45 AM - Last modified July 18, 2017 5:41 PM