The universe of scientific research has undergone a profound change over the past two-three decades, more substantial than ever during the previous three centuries. Academician József Pálinkás, President of the National Research, Development and Innovation Office, talked to Origo news portal about opening the Frontline programme supporting our most successful researchers in the global competition, as well as hot topics of basic and applied research, the situation of Hungarian science and its financing possibilities.
Scientific discoveries not only radically reshape our vision of the macro- and microcosmos but, due to research achievements applied, they become more and more integrated into our daily lives, generating changes at the level of societies.
Large-scale scientific research projects have grown into complex endeavours demanding substantial material and intellectual capacities, and are typically implemented in the framework of extensive international cooperation involving varied fields of science. Which are the major fields of science where Hungarian scientists are outstanding even in an international comparison?
In nearly every field of science we have a researcher whose work is internationally recognised. I would say that Hungarian neuroscience and mathematical research for sure belong to the global frontline, as well as Hungarian theoretical physicians who have gained international recognition in the development of CERN or the research of gravitational waves, for example.
We have achieved cutting-edge results in bio-informatics, protein sciences and molecular biology, but Hungarian scientists have gained international recognition also in nanotechnology, a particularly important field of these days with revolutionary perspectives.
The future generation of scientists will have serious tasks in answering the most burning questions, economic and social challenges of our times. How the NRDI Office can motivate young researchers in Hungary and support their work?
Indeed, our future depends on how young researchers are able to deepen their knowledge and fulfil their talent and ambitions. One very important istrument of this is the post-doctoral system providing support to researchers in the early phase of their independent careers after obtaining a degree. The programme includes on average one hundred researchers annually, the NRDI Office provides a total budget of HUF 1.5 billion (EUR 4.8 million) in 2018 alone for this purpose. In Hungary we also have a programme which provides funding for discovery research, this is available to researchers with no restrictions on themes to support their own research projects and ideas.
Proposals are evaluated by the most prominent scientists in the given field of science.
One of the most important objectives of the system is to encourage young researchers to elaborate research themes which are the most in line with their interests and ambitions. Two years ago, in 2016 only 36 researchers under 40 years of age submitted proposals. Therefore, in the funding scheme of thematic research applications we launched the programme supporting the independent projects and research groups of researchers under 40 years of age, and in 2017 already 108 young researchers under 40 years of age received funding as a result. Really great and important results can only be achieved if young researchers have the room to realise their ideas in the right time.
The number of researchers under 45 years of age is also increasing in the excellence programmes supporting the most successful ones.
Experience says excellent people attract excellent people. Fortunately, these days some professionally excellent, let us say, fundamental research workshops, who could as well create a school of research, have gained strength, where young Hungarian scientists working abroad can continue their work under the same conditions at home, if and when they return.
Therefore, a very important objective is to support autonomous research programmes, maintaining excellence programmes and having Hungary as an attractive place for implementing these.
What projects would you identify as promising or successful out of recently funded project proposals?
It is worth monitoring the results of thematic national research programmes, no matter if we talk about the national brain research programme, or the outcome of projects improving the treatment of diseases with an outstanding death risk, but on the website of the Office we provide information on the economic and social benefits of specific research findings and projects implemented in cooperation between research units and businesses. The national quantum technology programme is a promising one, HUF 3.5 billion (EUR 11 million) of funding was granted to a consortium, made up of the Wigner Research Centre for Physics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Budapest University of Technology and four industrial partners.
The consortium works on the practical application of quantum technology, for example, the development of quantum computers.
We can safely say that the development of quantum computers – in the area of which promising research is done in the United States, at the Lockheed Martin amongst other companies –, would bring about a genuine revolution in the area of informatics and information security.
Today, informatics and information security and the related research have become of strategic importance. Every country and organisation is able to make use of global knowledge as much as it can add to it. Therefore, it is essential to have professionals in this priority field of science who, in the scientific sense of the word, have an insight into Chinese, American or Korean projects.
With the programme just launched, Hungary may catch up in certain areas, while in other areas might even become a frontrunner in the region. We will have researchers, experts, who can work out their own security solutions and developments and we will not be fully exposed to international technologies.
In line with the diversity of science, research platforms and structures have also become extremely diverse. The times when scientific research was exclusively done at university departments and the research institutes of the Academy of Sciences are over, today, mostly in the area of applied research, the research and development divisions of large companies have very serious capacities. What does it mean in the funding system and what is the proportion in this context of natural and social sciences?
The National Research, Development and Innovation Office has elaborated a portfolio of calls for proposals in which we stimulate traditional research units, for example universities, in multiple calls, to cooperate with enterprise level research units. So far, we have spent more than HUF 190 billion (EUR 613 million) for supporting this priority cooperation in several different schemes of calls for proposals.
Of this amount HUF 34 billion was spent at national level to establish centres for cooperation between industry and universities in 8 places. It is a very important task to involve the industry in selecting the fields of research they consider important and worth supporting.
As far as the types of funded projects are concerned, these are mostly related to natural and engineering sciences.
May I remark that in the area of thematic project applications initiated by researchers in the field of discovery research, the natural sciences are predominant. Projects of social sciences represent approximately twenty percent. In this type of calls for proposals there is a balanced representation of the main fields of science.
Twenty percent of winning projects are in the field of medical, biological sciences, a bit more than 20 percent come from the field of mathematics, physics, engineering sciences, and a bit less than twenty percent of winning projects are in the fields of ecological, agricultural and earth sciences. It is important to emphasise that the cooperation between different fields of science, complex research programmes launched on “neighbouring fields of science” is a tendency in scientific research, which has been gaining more and more importance.
Who are the Hungarian researchers you would identify as belonging to the international frontline in terms of their results and recognition?
Well, this is a difficult question, exactly for the reason I have already mentioned, namely, that the number of Hungarian researchers whom we can be proud of as internationally recognised has fortunately been on the increase. Our researchers funded by the Frontline programme or the winners of calls for proposals to increase the international visibility of Hungarian scientific achievements meet a very stringent system of criteria which makes them competitive with the international frontline.
Let me handpick some examples which might be a source of inspiration for the future generation of researchers.
Mention must be made of Csaba Pál, principal investigator and group leader at the Biological Research Centre of the HAS in Szeged, whose research in the area of antibiotic resistance is also a forerunner in an international comparison.
It is important to know that an outstanding principal investigator does not only need to be an excellent scientist, but has to have good organisational skills as the leader of the research group.
The activities of Csaba Pál are exemplary in this regard, as well. Zoltán Nusser, physiologist, neurobiologist, ordinary member of the HAS, also obtained funding from the Frontline programme and competing with hundreds of leading researchers from different countries of the EU he was awarded the support of the European Research Council for the third time this year.
But I may also mention Sándor Katz, professor of the Loránd Eötvös University of Sciences, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Department of Theoretical Physics, who similarly to Csaba Pál, achieved internationally noted results in particle physics research as member of the generation of young researchers.
Of women researchers, I would mention the name of Mónika Fuxreiter, working at the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Research Institute of the Debrecen University, whose “theory of fuzzy complexes” may cause certain areas of molecular biology to undergo substantial changes.
The research of Judit Makara (HAS Institute of Experimental Medicine) and her research plans to investigate the axons of neuron cells and the functioning of the memory was not only recognised by the European research funding organisation with its top grant, but it was also found promising by the joint calls for proposals of foundations providing support for cutting edge research in the US.
And I could continue the list with other prominent representatives of Hungarian science whose results will hopefully serve as a source of inspiration for many to pursue a researcher’s career.
What is the role of the Frontline programme which has recently been announced again amongst the so-called excellence programmes and in terms of researcher’s career? To what extent is it different from the Momentum programme, which you launched at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and which has gained popularity?
The mission of the Momentum programme of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences is to make it possible for Hungarian researchers working abroad to set up research groups in Hungary and as principal investigators involve the most talented post-doctors, PhD students in promising research; on the other hand, to make it possible for the most talented and most promising researchers of the best Hungarian research groups to act as independent lead researchers and establish internationally competitive research programmes.
The Frontline programme provides support at a later phase of the researcher’s career. The objective of the Frontline is to enable the most outstanding researchers to continue their work and stay in the frontline of the world, these are researchers who in their fields of science are in the first line of researchers, they may have been assisted in getting there with the help of the Momentum scheme, and who are in the most dynamic creative phase of their careers.
Here professional criteria are much more demanding, the call is open to researchers who have already achieved internationally recognised results, which within the given field of science have triggered major impacts.
Successful applicants are usually granted EUR 1 million for five years.
For the sake of comparison, in the grant scheme of the European Research Council the maximum amount of grant available is EUR 2.5 million. The pre-condition for projects which can be granted the funding and which have the promise of a scientific breakthrough is the predictable funding of the research and a long-term career perspective for the researcher, therefore, over the recent years we have established a multi-level scheme, where various layers are built on one another.
The post-doctoral programme incentivises researchers in the initial phase of their careers, which is followed by the thematic research application for young researchers, who wish to work independently. The thematic research application may provide funding for researchers who already have a stable research background. In addition to calls for proposals for a broader spectrum of the researcher community, excellence programmes encourage the competitiveness of cutting edge research.
What are the linkages between the demands of the industry, the economic sphere and the research institutes?
I have already mentioned the importance of strengthening industry-university cooperation and how much funding has been allocated for this purpose in various schemes of calls for proposals. Such cooperation programmes do not only affect large companies, but medium and small-sized enterprises may also be granted funding from university and academic institutional research platforms to enable them to implement their development objectives.
What does this cooperation opportunity mean in practice? In addition to joint research projects, this might include the use of the research infrastructure. Why would, for example, a company need to invest into an extremely expensive electronic microscope necessary for material analysis, if this analysis may be done by a university or academic research institute having the appropriate instrument?
The dominance of the on-line world developing at a high pace induces serious changes not only in scientific research, but also in society at large. The Internet was created in the second half of the 1980s in scientific research and it was here where it spread at the highest pace as it opened up unprecedented opportunities in the exchange of scientific information. My next question is related to this, what is open science and what is the approach taken and the instruments used by the new generation of researchers?
Until the end of 1980s, scientific publications were published nearly only in printed journals. By now, the situation has profoundly changed, the sources, publications necessary for research and scientific databases are fully available on the Internet to professionals in an updated form, however, these need to be subscribed to at an extremely high price.
The costs are understandable because maintaining on-line scientific portals is a costly business and the costs do not derive only from the maintenance and technical expenses of on-line editorial boards, but from the honorarium of the major expert “background” assessing and reviewing publications. To have all the on-line journals available in all fields of science to researchers in a small or less developed country for research institutes is practically impossible for certain countries due to the scarcity of financial resources and the lack of updated information makes the catching up with the scientific frontline impossible.
This might have serious disadvantages because nowadays the level of development of an individual country is predominantly determined by the situation of research, development and innovation in that country. The objective of the open science initiative is to make the results of publicly financed research open and available. This is a legitimate demand as is the question of who should cover the maintenance costs of scientific information sources and data banks? According to the new approach, the costs of publications are not covered by the readers, users, but by the research groups publishing scientific results, nevertheless, they also need proper funding and support.
This makes the results available to users free of charge.
The system is of paramount importance in terms of the freedom of research and access to scientific results.
Hungary today spends HUF 3.5 billion (EUR 11.3 million) annually on the subscription fees of scientific journal databases and for Hungarian researchers to enable them to publish in the open system. Though the modus operandi is to be further refined and publishers, the researcher community and funding organisations need more consultation, yet I am of the opinion that the open science system will become general within the foreseeable future, which I estimate to be in five years’ time at the latest.
By the way, Hungary was one of the five EU Member States to adopt this EU initiative, which aims to ensure open access to publications and research findings. In relation to this, I initiated the establishment of an expert committee, which elaborated a concept concerning the legislative, government policy, strategic, funding, organisational, communication and science evaluation issues relating to this area.
The “National Programme of Open Access Science”, the proposal made by the committee shall be discussed with the representatives of the scientific community.
The start-up enterprises are also a new phenomenon, just as the support for spin-off enterprises was earlier. Are there any programmes to promote start-ups?
The essence of the spin-off is that an institution itself sets up an independent enterprise to apply in practice the scientific result which was arrived at within the institution.
This in practice is a form of a start-up enterprise.
Start-ups are generally innovative enterprises, established to develop some technological solution and they are characterised by a high growth rate. Several business ideas are born in universities but not all of them are translated into a successful enterprise.
For the business ideas to become functioning enterprises, we have launched the programme which promotes incubators. Thus eight incubators were established all over the country with a total funding of HUF 6.5 billion (EUR 21 million). The task of incubators is to promote the business idea and help researchers, entrepreneurs in developing the idea, working out the business model, establishing the enterprise and raising the necessary funding. Therefore, the incubator itself will also have a small share in the start-up.
We frequently talk about Hungary as one of the countries with the largest number of Nobel laureates per capita. How do you see this question nowadays, when a Nobel-winning scientific achievement requires the cooperation of dozens or even hundreds of researchers, do we have any chance of a Hungarian Nobel laureate again?
Indeed, the broad public likes “to measure” scientific success with the number of Nobel Prizes. All I can say is that today in Hungary we can find genuinely world-class scientific results which meet the criteria of the Nobel Prize.