Challenge-led research for the future
On 3 July, The Guild held an interdisciplinary debate on Horizon Europe’s Strategic Planning process, which determines the priorities for challenge-led funding at EU level.
Kurt Vandenberghe, Director for Research and Innovation at the European Commission, and Svein Stølen, Rector of the University of Oslo, examined why research and innovation (R&I) should be core features of any plan for the future.
Kurt Vandenberghe emphasized that – whether through direct intervention, political intermediaries, or policymakers – research communities must politically communicate their contributions to social, economic, technological and environmental sustainability in Europe. Svein Stølen added that by embracing interdisciplinarity, universities can help achieve a wider impact in these areas.
Vandenberghe and Stølen were joined by members of The Guild’s academic community who contributed to the network’s recommendations for Horizon Europe’s thematic clusters: Marika Edoff from Uppsala University, Marco Viceconti from the University of Bologna, and Aud Valborg Tønnessen from the University of Oslo. Building on a set of concerns that framed The Guild’s policy positions and the event, speakers concentrated on challenge-led research that can have the greatest impact on European societies and the region’s contributions to global sustainable development goals.
Speakers and participants alike stressed the need to broaden current notions of impact to incentivize projects that are structured around societal needs. For the Health cluster, Viceconti presented challenges that demand interdisciplinarity and close ties between research and innovation.
On the one hand, the “long-term sustainability of most universal healthcare systems is [being] questioned,” and the alternative models on offer “produce unacceptable inequality, considering health is a fundamental human right,” he explained. Ageing populations, environmental stressors and rising costs, among other factors, are straining health systems across Europe.
On the other hand, we still lack knowledge concerning the mechanisms behind cardiovascular, respiratory, neurodegenerative, musculoskeletal and immune-related diseases, and cancer. Viceconti described how these mechanisms cannot be understood without investigating a full range of elements: “from molecules to whole organisms, with no preferential scale, and no preferential research method.” Innovation can play a central role in collecting, curating and sharing medical data, which can aid our understanding of complex diseases and the interactions that affect prevention, prognoses and wellbeing.
Digital transformations shape our lives in powerful ways, not only in relation to health. As Aud Valborg Tønnesen argued, technologies have social and individual contexts and effects that demand greater understanding, which can be gained through more interdisciplinary collaboration. This, in turn, helps us anticipate – and hopefully mitigate – the unintended consequences of the solutions we develop. Increasing the cultural capital of citizens, alongside technological development, can also address one of our biggest challenges: strengthening democratic participation in Europe.
Prof. Edoff drew attention to the interlinked nature of the challenges that Horizon Europe will address; for example, the need to improve energy efficiency in advanced computing. Its energy consumption grows rapidly (it already consumes 7% of the world’s electricity), and this directly impacts access and climate change. To increase efficiency, advanced computing requires better hardware, operating and networking systems, as well as more accurate algorithms and new materials, models and methodologies. The research that goes into developing all these elements covers the entire pipeline, from frontier-led to applied.
On Artificial Intelligence, Vandenberghe echoed a view that has garnered support recently: European AI should be human-centered, adhering to the EU’s core values. “Ask not what Europe can do for AI, but what AI can do for Europe.” Edoff also added that AI provides fertile ground for interdisciplinary research, especially when it comes to the numerous ethical questions that underpin the process of building AI systems and their actual use.
All speakers defined challenges in their disciplines, but they also illustrated how research that spans the disciplinary spectrum is decisive in producing knowledge and innovation that benefit societies and ecosystems.