Institutional Curiosity: Why Research Matters

Dr. Helga Novotny of EURAB Hopes to Promote a ‘Renaissance of Basic Research’ in Europe:speaking at the WUV Faculty Retreat, April 2006

Research is a hot topic these days – and not just at Webster Vienna, where the last faculty research positions required for Austrian accreditation are scheduled to be filled by Fall Semester, 2006.

Research is also the talk of Europe. Since March 2000, when the European Union Council meeting in Lisbon announced its ambitious goal of becoming a “Europe of Innovation and Knowledge” by 2010, plans have been underway to increase research spending both public and private, by well over 50% in real terms. Against the background of an economic climate described by the Lisbon protocol as “the most promising for a generation,” the Council declared its intention to “set the pace” in competitive areas and called for a “radical overhaul of the education system in Europe.”

The plan carried a budget of some € 20 billion through 2006 to develop a European Research Area of cooperative research, development and innovation, and ultimately a European Research Council, along the lines of the U.S. National Science Foundation expanded to embrace all disciplines.

In the meantime, a European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) was set up in 2001 to guide the Commissions work – directed by Dr. Helga Novotny, LLD PhD, Professor of Social Science and Fellow of the Wissenschaftszentrum Wien (Vienna Center for the Study of the Human and Natural Sciences).

And it was Dr. Helga Novotny who came to speak at the Webster Vienna Faculty Retreat on April 1, 2006.

“This is no joke,” teased Dr. Michael Freund, head of Webster’s Media as he introduced Dr. Novotny to the assembled faculty in the Conference Center on the third floor of the University’s home on Berchtoldsgasse in Vienna’s 22nd District. “Her C.V. is so long – with teaching and research positions at Cambridge, Bielefeld, Germany, ETH Zurich, the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin, Budapest and Geneva – her real range of knowledge is so vast, it is sometimes hard to believe we are not making this up!”

Her field, he told us, is the Sociology of Knowledge, “the science of all sciences,” that of how we know what we know, and how research is decided on, done and used. Now, with Webster Vienna’s expanded commitment to faculty research, “WUV is beginning a new chapter,” Freund said, “with all its necessities and difficulties…”

And, as Helga Novotny would add, “its joys.”

Helga Novotny rose to her feet and walked up to the podium. A small, vibrant woman, with salt and pepper grey hair in an effortless bob, Dr. Novotny looks much younger than her 3 score years and 10. She spoke sitting down, and in flawless English, easily commanded the room.

We are in the midst of “a renaissance of basic research,” she told us, now perceived as a necessity amidst the demands of rapid change. Between 1993 and 2001 global spending for research grew from $452 Billion to $774 Billion, an average increase of 6.9%, and for a small group of developing countries like China, India and So. Korea, the increases are twice that.

“It’s a world-wide competition,” Dr. Novotny said, “and a global market for PhD students,” whom she described as “the real source of any real work” in research.

“The graduates of a university are the most important product of that university,” Novotny said. “They have the latest research, and the best networks.”

However in today’s world of global communication, world trade and growing internationalism, research too is crossing borders, no longer confined within the traditional disciplines and protocols of the university.

“Today, it is a renaissance of basic research [in a style] that is more open,” she said, with “a blurring of institutional boundaries.”

This attitude will be reflected in the new European Research Council, that Dr. Novotny said reflects “a radical shift in the policy of the EU, understanding research as a shared goal rather than merely the purview of the individual member states or of an industrial sector that “no longer conducts basic research in house.”

“Governments have taken a liking to the word ‘basic research,’” she said, a term that suggests independence, and concepts like ‘promise,’ or ‘prestige.’ “It is the production of new knowledge, with the promise of new directions.”

Industry also likes the word. “This way, they can pick and choose,” she said. “The element of unpredictability gives a defence for public funding.” And while the cost effectiveness may be hard to measure, “if you don’t do it, you will certainly lose out.”

Here we had arrived at the core difficulty researchers face, and one that makes the issue of research particularly thorny at a pay-as-you-go university like Webster.

To Dr. Novotny, the choice is clear.

“It means investing in people,” she said. “Where we underestimate the economic value of the graduates, we are making a mistake. There is enormous pressure on all researchers, particularly a scarcity of time. Almost no one does only research; nearly all teach, and it is useful to stay connected with students, and the peer review process is very demanding.

“We are in the ‘excellence game,’ ” she said, with “micro management of evaluation everywhere, and the risk of too much mainstreaming and use of quantitative measures.”

In response, she pleads for diversity and flexibility – and support.

“We need to make it attractive to do research, along the Humboltean ideal,” she said. “An institution should maintain a link between research and teaching, and be more realistic about people’s different strengths.”  The difficulties are particularly extreme in the Social Sciences, cramped by the model of the Natural Sciences, which does not allow enough flexibility.

“The sooner you set up your own context to evaluate your progress, the better,” she said. At the European Research Council, the Humanities and Social Sciences will have an equal chance to the Natural Sciences for funding, and while researchers must have a “team,” it  only needs to be more than one person, to encourage cooperation. A further goal is to encourage new research products, citing as an example the current exhibition of “Mozart’s Enlightenment” at the Albertina, or “Experiment OG, an exhibition which opened in June creating a dialogue with the public on ideas and issues in science.

As to the joys of doing research, this is simply human nature, she said: the satisfaction that comes in finding answers.

“Curiosity is part of our survival strategies as a species,” Dr. Novotny said. Einstein did not consider himself particularly talented, “only passionately curious.” And the only two areas where curiosity is institutionalized are in research and in the arts.

For both, one must be willing to take risks. Her advice: Start small, do what you feel passionate about, and enter through an existing network for guidance and support.

Questions from the faculty and staff addressed the problems of funding, grant writing and lack of support from industry, and the difficulties of establishing a research culture in a teaching university.

“Industry is reluctant to fund basic research,” confirmed Mehdi Ali, Adj. Professor of finance, citing the example of Daimler Chrysler, where 90% of research money goes to development applications. “There is a fear of intellectual property abuses because of globalization.”

For patent rights to work, you must have a good infrastructure, Dr. Novotny agreed. And this is very expensive. At the same time, the Open Access Movement was challenging the very idea of ownership of new ideas, concepts or even technologies.

But why should Webster Vienna be involved in research at all, wondered Der Standard managing editor Eric Frey, adjunct professor of International Relations?  “There is much less good teaching in Austria, so why is a teaching university being forced to do research?” Frey, who is also Dr. Novotny’s son in law, challenged the idea of research as an absolute good, as a “magical formula.” Why, he wondered, should we assume that research will necessarily have positive social benefits?

“The missing link is people,” Dr. Novotny said, echoing her earlier comments, “people who leave with an understanding of what research is for. The search for new knowledge becomes a way of approaching anything. We will always need enough people who can make a qualified judgment; these have to be trained.”

Comments from Webster Vienna Director Dr. Arthur Hirsh revealed his frustrations at trying to meet the research requirements of the Austrian Accreditation Board.

“So how do we change our culture to adapt to Austria, at a time when our home campus doesn’t understand the purpose?,” he wondered.

For Dr. Thomas Oberlechner, Psychology Department Head, the central question was how to put the goal of a grant writing culture into practice, for which Dr. Novotny offered to assist with informal contact with the Fond for Wissenschaftlichen Forschung, and the assembling of a list of funding sources in Austria. A proposal was made for a Grant Writing Workshop, sponsored by the university, to which faculty would bring their ideas, evidence, and proposals and end with a draft.

“We establish [the right climate] by doing, not by talking about it, which is a kind of ‘meta’ knowledge,” Dr. Novotny said. “Increasingly, it is becoming more acceptable to think of products.”

But however appealing the Humboltian ideal, Webster Dean Dr. William Fulton pointed out, “it is hard to find people who are excellent at both [teaching and research]. Some faculty have been able to involve students in research, he said, citing Dr. Oberlechner’s project funded by the Austrian National Bank, “just not ‘basic’ research.”

“Don’t get stuck on the term ‘basic,’” Dr. Novotny cautioned, in what may have been the most liberating comment of the afternoon. “Defining ‘new knowledge’ is a tricky point, because in the Social Sciences, it is often the re-thinking of existing information.”

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