(This article is translated from Dutch. The original version is here)
In games, science works the way you'd want it to work. You have a team of researchers fully at your disposal. You tell them what needs to happen, they can tell you exactly how much time and resources they require to deliver you the technology that will help you beat rival civilizations, the invading aliens or whatever. This technology is specified in advance, as are all new lines of research that will open up once you have discovered this particular bit of science.
Reality is a tad more complicated, and that's what Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner's job is all about.
Kaltenbrunner is from Austria, and works at the CWTS, Leiden University's department that considers itself with scientific research into scientific research. Kaltenbrunner is particularly interested in the question how funding is integrated into research agendas.
This is more important than you might think. In the first place because the Netherlands spend roughly five billion dollars of tax money on research, so it would be nice if this is spent in a useful way.
It's also important because science and technology are supposed to get us out of the problems humanity has created for itself. Climate change, plastic soup, biodiversity, pandemics: policy makers like to bet on solutions that do not exist yet, but may very well arrive and work better than the tools they have right now.
“On the European level, more money is spent on such 'grand challenges' than on blue skies science where researchers can just pitch a research idea”, Kaltenbrunner says. In the Netherlands, we spend roughly twice as much, even.
In a recent paper in the Journal of Responsible Innovation, Kaltenbrunner shows the effects of such funding on what he calls the “academic shop floor”. For his research, he followed two groups at German universites, which he has followed for a long time.
The first group is in automotive technology, and shows how the funding landscape helps decide the long term research strategy of a group. Right before the old professor retired, the German government decided that electric cars were the way to go. Partly in light of stricter EU-wide CO2 emission limits for new cars, chancellor Merkel herself set the aim of increasing the market share of electrical vehicles to an absolute number of one million by the year 2020. And in order to get there, money was given to scientists. The new professor had his eyes on that prize: the group was to get funding from these new electro-funds. And they did: the group grew to have no less than fifty PhD students, two thirds of whom were paid by outside funding.
That does not mean that life was easy for the ambitious new professor. Coordinating a huge team like that is hard. Also, building prototypes involves a lot of mundane engineering work that is important to get the project done, but not important in terms of learning new things that you can put in your PhD thesis. The electromobility agenda of the research group conflicted with the research agenda of the PhD students, some people complained to Kaltenbrunner.
Then there was the German car industry. As in comparable Dutch funding situations like the Topsectorengelden and the Nationale WetenschapsAgenda, scientists had to work together with industry. The car makers, however, didn't want ambitious professors building revolutionary prototypes at all . They, and the swarms of companies they work with, had invested billions into fossil fuel cars and the means to produce them. What they wanted was for things to stay the same as much as possible, so they were more interested in hybrid cars and range extenders. Even if these were less interesting, both from an engineering and an environmental point of view.
“So, what are you going to do?” Kaltenbrunner asks. “Are you pushing the envelope and trying to convince the industry to move with you? Of do you reduce your own risk? Being too radical is a bad funding strategy, because then the car people won't get on board with you. Do you follow the spirit of the challenge, or cater to the industry's needs?”
The automotive engineers chose the first option, in order to “Hold up a mirror to industry, not unlike a court jester”, as the professor called it.
The other research group Kaltenbrunner was following – biochemists looking for alternatives to petrochemicals – stayed closer to home and the interests of the chemical industry. On paper, they fulfilled the requirements of the funders. But a real answer to the societal challenges, a game changer that could not have come from a company's R&D lab, was not delivered.
You know what happened to the electromobilty research, because sometimes you come outside. There are Teslas there alright, but no German electric vehicles that were started from scratch. The research group shrunk, and got into even more problems when the funders changed focus to self-driving cars – a switch that is a lot easier for the people who pay for the research than for those that do it.
“Academics should not be left to gamble”, Kaltenbrunner says. In his article he writes: “(There's) an ill-acknowledged tension between the normative goals of grand challenges, and the practical uncertainty that reliance on such funding creates for recipients.”
“Policy makes have a tendency to see society's problems as primarily technical problems”, he says. “The solution for which is to give money to scientists.” The approach that works so very well in Civilization and XCOM.
“In reality, you need to do more. Because of the problems with the groups' research agendas, because of the problems keeping industry involved, because of problems with the people who will be the end users of your desired technology. You need mechanisms to coordinate your challenge, such as stricter laws, taxes, money spent on the infrastructure, etcetera. The transitions involved with our challenges are not just technical problems, but first and foremost political problems.”