Belgian research hungry for future Nobel Prize

  • The ministers responsible for research have celebrated François Englert’s accolade.
  • However, a 50% increase in public funding is needed to finance the field correctly.

Will you write this Nobel Prize in as a footnote in the next financing applications? “I won’t place it as a footnote, but I’ll put it at the top of our requests,” replies Didier Viviers, rector of the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), a few minutes after his institution’s celebrations – for having fostered François Englert, 2013 Nobel Prize winner, within its walls for nearly his entire career – had died down. During the press conference, both men were surrounded by prime minister Elio Di Rupo and by four other ministers who did not miss the opportunity to point out the importance of their support for research. The researchers in the audience complained aloud, “What are they doing here? What have they done to support researchers like Englert?”

The fact is that Belgian research, especially fundamental research, is particularly underfunded regardless of which level of the government becomes involved. In order to comply with European goals, an investment equal to 3% of GDP would be required. Only a little over 2% has been invested for the past twenty years; 2.21% in 2011 is the high water mark.

“The goal for fundamental research, such as the kind that won the prize today, would be 1%. At this point though, it’s only 0.63% and it’s stagnating,” explains Véronique Halloin, FNRS (National Fund for Scientific Research) secretary general, whose organization manages most of the Francophone fundamental research projects. “While Belgium is usually rated first in the quality of its research, estimates show that the public authorities need to raise funding by 50%. This translates in present resources to being insufficient to finance the growing pace of research candidates who have a rating of very good to excellent. This could increase the brain drain phenomenon. The quality of the research in our country attracts high-level foreign researchers, but it does not always do what is necessary to keep the researchers that it has trained. They are subsequently attracted not by higher salaries, but by material research conditions offered by some countries.”

So Belgium does not offer fertile enough soil to shelter today’s Englerts and Brouts, who could be the Nobel Prize winners of the future? “I believe that the funding situation has deteriorated and has become extremely difficult. We must continue to combat brain drain,” emphasizes François Englert. Professor Jean-Marie Frère, who succeeded him as the head of the ULB theoretical physics department, states, “Belgium remains highly attractive. Half of our researchers come from abroad. This, however, implies maintaining and increasing subsidies for programs such as PAI [Editor’s note: Inter-university magnet cluster], founded by Englert. Its federal financing, though, is only guaranteed up until 2017”.

Threat to young researchers

Rector Didier Vivier considers a Nobel Prize to “signify recognition of what has been accomplished. It says that we’re a good university to come to and pursue research, and it offers the best laboratories. Fundamental research funding must be improved. It’s far from sufficient today.”

Vincent Yzerbyt, the research vice-rector at the Catholic University of Louvain explains, “In Belgium we perform very high-quality research, especially considering the funding it receives. If we take into account the number of inhabitants and the money invested, we are second in the world as a country in publications. We do have certain assets, but threats are overshadowing Belgian research. Because of this, the PAIs could disappear (they would fall under the communities or regions). If these magnets are eliminated, young researchers will find themselves in difficulty. We can’t eliminate these PAIs all the while affirming that we support fundamental research”.

Pierre Wolper, University of Liège research vice-rector, wholeheartedly agrees, “This Nobel Prize is fairly unique because it’s in theoretical research carried out by only three people. Most Nobel Prizes awarded today reward research founded on huge infrastructure and large teams. That type of Nobel Prize is easier to get. Belgian funding is low compared to European standards. In spite of this, we have high-quality research because our researchers are very creative, and they find solutions where the means are absent. If we continue to go in that direction, there are miracles we won’t be able to perform. Finally, fundamental research is required to have some immediate societal impact when this is often only seen much later. If we knew exactly how to find an ingenuous use for it, we’d do nothing else, but it’s impossible. The political class needs to commit to support research that does not line up with their expectations.”

VIOLAINE JADOUL

FRÉDÉRIC SOUMOIS

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