The European Commission took a look at at its budgets last week and was so overcome with joy that it felt moved to issue a press release trumpeting that the “European Commission is world’s largest public investor in nanotechnology.” I think it is a great idea that the EU should be awash with nanotech research funding, but I’m not entirely convinced that it is simply a matter of the size of the budgets involved.
When comparing national and international projects, some measure of the effectiveness of the funding is also needed, and this is where it gets tricky. Simplistic measures such as the number of papers published in high impact journals, number of PhDs, amount of R&D capital mobilized are all useful indicators, but there is plenty of effective funding that would not be highlighted by these indices.
A typical case is in the funding of R&D in Eastern Europe, where on the surface a huge amount of money appears to be pumped into a variety of black holes, at least compared with the R&D output of similar projects in Western Europe. But looking beyond the headline numbers, much of this money is being spent on developing R&D competence and infrastructure across Eastern Europe. Many of the institutions I work with have fantastic scientific expertise, and as a result of the activities of “the world’s largest public investor in nanotechnology,”which often helps free up local governmental funding, the labs are becoming ever better equipped.
The problem that does need to be addressed, and which there is no quick fix, is in experience. Across Eastern Europe, researchers are still way behind their western counterparts when it comes to leveraging funding to produce scientific excellence. At this stage it is unfair to compare a Bulgarian institution with a leading German of British university, but giving them a leg up on this steep learning curve is major, if unseen objective of European funding, and one which distinguishes it from the US or Japanese funding programs to which Europe is so often compared in budgetary terms.