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“Fundamental research needs to maintain its capacity to open unexplored horizons”

Germán Zango fundamental research

Fundamental research is the cornerstone of many of the scientific and social advances we are experiencing, and it is essentially produced in universities and research centres. Germán Zango is the leader of Zabala Innovation’s Universities Area, made up of an up-and-coming team that helps disruptive proposals that can change the future to find the necessary funding to carry them out. In this interview he analyses the situation of academic research in Europe and the challenges it faces.

The fundamental research that comes out of universities and research and technology centres has been, is and will be the pillar of science and, without a doubt, the backbone of development and innovation.

Within the current Horizon Europe framework programme for research and innovation funding, the promotion and support of scientific research occupies a predominant place and is one of the three pillars of the programme, the so-called Excellent Science. It would therefore be illogical for Zabala Innovation not to treat this activity with the same importance. We also have several universities and centres in our client portfolio and technical staff with experience and prior knowledge in fundamental science.

The “high risk-high gain” nature of fundamental research projects, i.e., that their discoveries supply disruptive breakthroughs, but at the cost of taking high conceptual and operational risks, requires an approach where scientific excellence is the main evaluation criterion, different from other European R&D&I support mechanisms.

Fundamental research, in which Europe has been and is historically a leader and reference, arises from the need to understand and broaden our understanding of the phenomena occurring in the various fields of knowledge (energy, health, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, etc.), without an at once practical purpose.

Recently, however, we have seen how other powers outside the European Union have taken the lead in the race for applied innovation, promoting and monetising scientific discoveries and developments in the creation of new industries and markets.

It is therefore particularly important that the research activity conducted in universities is not only limited to deepening our understanding of the world around us, but is also the origin of novel materials, technologies, methodologies and processes that give rise to innovations with a high environmental, economic and social impact.

It is not surprising that the richest European countries or those with the highest GDP per capita in the EU, such as Denmark, Austria, Sweden and Germany, are also those that allocate the highest average annual investment to funding scientific research. This should convince us that investing in science is indeed a profitable investment in the future for a country.

We have also seen that those universities and technology centres that are most active in European projects and that obtain the most funding for their projects involve a large number of their research teams and take part in most of Horizon Europe calls for proposals. This shows that, in addition to cultivating scientific excellence as a hallmark of identity, the search for funding and the management and promotion of innovation is set up as a basic activity within academic institutions.

In line with what we have been saying, I would say that one of the main needs of the sector is to maintain its disruptive nature and its capacity to open unexplored horizons, while at the same time moving forward to find solutions to the enormous environmental, energy, social, health and other challenges we face in the current global context.

Academic research needs to be not only a response to existing problems, but also a trend-setter and an enabling activity. Major scientific findings lead the way and set the roadmap for future technological progress.

The recent announcement of major breakthroughs in the development and achievement of key milestones in nuclear fusion technology from the United States is an excellent example. In the best-case scenario, this technology, one of the greatest medium-term future promises for a clean energy source, will still need decades to reach a sufficient degree of maturity to begin to be considered as a workable alternative. However, the country leading the race in these first stages of development will undoubtedly have a fundamental advantage and will have a privileged position in the geopolitical and economic scenario of the future.

Finally, it is necessary to implement all the necessary measures to ensure that a research career can be seen as a professional career with the ability to achieve long-term employment and financial stability.

Coming from the world of academic research, I believe that one of the main challenges facing this sector is to overcome a certain disconnection with the real needs of society, as well as to better communicate the importance of its activities.

Many of the innovations that we use in our daily lives and that we take for granted were only possible thanks to key milestones in fundamental and academic research that occurred years or decades ago. In this sense, one of the pending tasks for researchers is to make the relevance of their work and the impact of their results and achievements more intelligible and accessible to society, as well as to communicate their findings and advances to the different actors involved, among which the public occupies a key position.

In line with the European Commission, at Zabala Innovation we encourage and support our clients, mainly universities and research centres, in the preparation and presentation of projects that reflect novel concepts in the field of fundamental research, in order to achieve the objective of developing excellent science with a European stamp.

Our team is currently made up of six professionals, all of them with experience in scientific research and with PhDs in various branches of knowledge. In addition, within Zabala Innovation, we are fortunate to have more than 70 professionals with a PhD who help us on a day-to-day basis to analyse, prepare and review our clients’ proposals.

With more than twenty ERC proposals reviewed in Horizon Europe and a 60% success rate in the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, we can confirm that we are taking steps in the right direction to achieve funding for our clients’ scientific projects.

The main avenues of funding for scientific research that we work with are found in Pillar I of Horizon Europe. Within this pillar, more than 25 billion euros have been invested in supporting frontier research, improving the skills of researchers and developing research infrastructure networks.

The European Research Council’s programme supplies long-term funding to support excellent researchers and their research teams to conduct high-risk, high-impact innovations in any field of research.

The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions support the training and career development of European and global research staff through the funding of excellent PhD programmes, staff exchange programmes, individual postdoctoral projects and collaborative projects.

The main goal of the Research Infrastructures programme is to provide Europe with a comprehensive ecosystem of open and accessible state-of-the-art research and technology infrastructures, capable of offering a catalogue of resources and services to enable innovative and multidisciplinary research.

Finally, the COST European Science and Technology Cooperation actions help connect European research initiatives with each other and enable researchers and innovation leaders to develop and improve their ideas by fostering an open science ecosystem.

Fundamental research has long ceased to be seen in the stereotypical image of researchers locked up in their offices and laboratories, isolated from the outside world…

In addition to collaboration within one’s own area of knowledge, cross-disciplinary research has proven essential to address today’s global challenges. Europe stresses the need to seek solutions through collaboration and interdisciplinary work, integrating separate areas of research into one project to create a better understanding of a complex issue. A researcher who is open to constantly collaborating with other fields of knowledge in solving a scientific problem will not only see the quality of their research and the impact of their findings improve, but also increase their chances of securing funding to develop their projects.

The benefits that the digital era has brought in terms of sharing information and data, and the facilities for collaboration between universities and research teams are enormous. Some of the flagship Pillar I programmes foster these synergies through the creation of collaboration and exchange networks between universities. The implementation of initiatives such as the European Open Science Cloud has also been key to fostering this cooperation ecosystem.

Finally, it is not only about supporting projects and opportunities aimed at the academic world, but also about creating a new generation of highly qualified professionals and boosting their employability outside academia as well. Therefore, synergies with industry and private companies also play a significant role in, for example, Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions.

One of the challenges we are constantly facing is to keep up to date with scientific advances to help our clients develop innovative and disruptive proposals.

On the other hand, programmes such as the European Research Council have some of the lowest overall success rates within Horizon Europe, below 10%. Another of our challenges is to keep and improve Zabala Innovation’s success rates above the European average in these programmes. We are aware that researchers put all their enthusiasm and hopes into projects in which they strongly believe and to which they are willing to dedicate the following years of their professional life.

Our aim is to help them to present their proposals with the best possible guarantees of being funded in such a competitive environment as the European grants.

In this video you can learn more about the work of Zabala Innovation’s Universities Area.

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