Diversity in Unity? Missions and the Imagination
Over a number of months, Guild members have been engaging closely with the idea of collaborative research missions. We wanted to see what these might involve, how they could resolve some of our most pressing scientific problems, and whether we could capture these in ways that translated their urgency to the public.
Out of the forty mission proposals submitted by colleagues, it was interesting that most reflected similar research questions. The missions we propose at this early stage do not nearly cover the breadth of our universities’ research expertise, nor are they an exhaustive list of our most pressing scientific concerns. But they do represent thematic areas in which academic groups, independently of each other, have signaled a need to capture our collective imaginations, and make decisive progress.
To my mind, working on the missions and relating them to wider concerns drew into sharp focus the need to ensure that when we focus on the most pressing needs, we do not lose sight of the particular, or the unsuspected. If we want to maximise the effectiveness of missions, we need to optimise the ways in which these are linked to other priorities in the future global challenges of the 9th Framework Programme. At the same time, it would be a wasted opportunity if we did not allow at least some topics to emerge that have not yet been thought about in this context. For instance, one of our mission proposals is about ‘Restoring the authority of science’ – what might appear to be a self-serving topic for scientists is, in fact, about the viability of our democracies through evidence informed policymaking, the sustainability of our public institutions, and the future of the EU itself. It also articulates some fundamental questions related to Open Science, relating it to much wider concerns about how we recognise truth, and on what authority. Still, this topic does not relate to Societal Challenges as they currently exist.
As we think about a range of missions, can we have the courage to identify some that address something new, something we in the ‘Brussels bubble’ have not yet considered in this way, but that still fulfills a crucial societal need? This relates to the question of how we preserve the particular.
Consulting researchers as well as citizens will inevitably yield results; diversity is a core European strength. Are there thematic areas that could be of particular concern in some parts of Europe? This is not an argument to compromise excellence in conducting the research. But could we strengthen the citizens’ bond with science and innovation by addressing regional concerns in particular ways, through the best research conducted across Europe?
The missions should, then, complement the wider goals of challenge-driven research. They must self-evidently be built on fundamental research questions, and only by bringing the most excellent scientists and innovators together can we achieve their ultimate objectives. But if we do not also see missions as an opportunity to try something new, something that captures the imagination in ways we have not anticipated, and relate to the needs of Europeans, we will have missed a crucial opportunity.