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NSF's France Córdova speaks at a public symposium ahead of a meeting of the Global Research Council.

NSF's France Córdova speaks at a public symposium ahead of a meeting of the Global Research Council.

Dennis Normile

Global research chiefs seek ways to foster serendipity

TOKYO—How can research funding agencies foster scientific breakthroughs? Funding agency heads tackled that question this week at the annual meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC) here. Their conclusion: Researchers need freedom and the flexibility that leads to serendipity, and they should be encouraged to take risks even if it leads to failure. 

As Peter Strohschneider, president of the German Research Foundation in Bonn, said at a public symposium preceding the GRC meeting, trying to plan for breakthroughs is paradoxical: "Real innovations are those that come about unexpectedly, and this means we cannot actually plan for and organize them. In our strategies, we have to institutionalize something we cannot actually institutionalize."

If GRC didn't exactly resolve that particular paradox, participants believe the organization is making a valuable contribution to research management. Formed in 2012, GRC brings together funding chiefs to compare notes on common challenges and discuss cooperation. This was GRC's fourth annual meeting and included representatives from 56 science and engineering funding agencies from around the world. Each year, the council focuses on one or two specific topics. Previous meetings examined proposal review processes, open access, research integrity, and supporting the next generation of researchers.   

At a press conference here today, several agency heads gave examples of GRC's impact. Chunli Bai, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said council recommendations on open access were partly responsible for the academy's decision to make all papers it publishes freely available on the Internet. In Japan, a recently completed guideline on research integrity was influenced "by the discussion and the information sharing in the forum of this GRC," said Yuichiro Anzai, president of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science in Tokyo. And Rick Rylance, chair of the Research Councils UK in Swindon, said that GRC examination of proposals review processes "is a good example of the ways in which you try and spread good practice across the world."

The next GRC meeting, to be held in New Delhi next May, will address issues affecting women in the scientific workforce and how to promote interdisciplinary research. "If women are not represented in the research and scientific workforce, you are neglecting talent," Rylance said.

It's a lesson GRC might take to heart. During the public symposium, France Córdova, director of the United States' National Science Foundation, mentioned that there is only one woman on GRC's current 11-member governing board. (She didn't mention that she is that lone woman.)