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Organising PRIME research activities : 3 types of support

jeudi 20 janvier 2011, par julien

Apart from structural activities, PRIME distinguished itself from a number of NoEs by the fact that it supported research activities. These were, however, of a specific nature, addressing only those issues or areas that were not well covered by existing theories and methods, or supporting heterodox approaches in the ways to conceptualise problems. To do so normally requires bringing together different competences and developing so-called interdisciplinary projects. We labelled this ‘heterodox’ or ‘breakthrough’ research. The high-level group preparing for the ERC termed this ‘frontier research’ (2005), while the US NSB spoke of ‘transformative science’ (2007). We hypothesised that in an established group this would at best involve around 10% of the total activity, and thus PRIME was not dealing with mainstream activities but with helping to anticipate future activities. Such developments do not take place in a vacuum and this was later highlighted by the process put forward by the US Department of Energy for the development of its ‘energy frontier research centres’ (EFRC). This is why we developed a layered approach with 3 types of activities : ‘initiation and review activities’, ‘exploratory research’ and ‘comparative and aggregative research’.

These approach and choices were based on an 18-month agenda-setting effort which was initiated in 2002 via the FP5 PRIME Thematic Network . This agenda had targeted 3 main themes for addressing the 6 main challenges that policies were facing. Within each theme there were areas where the initial steps taken seemed promising, but required a coordinated effort to demonstrate at the European level the value of the new concepts or methods proposed. This was the role of comparative and aggregative projects. Such was the case, for instance, of projects on the governance of universities, of university spin-offs and start-up firms. There were other issues for which there were new ideas emerging but these had not yet been tested, and thus required some initial demonstration of their value. It was the role of ‘exploratory projects’ to support these. They were smaller in size and involved more risk taking. Doing this, the Scientific Committee said, required that we accept that a significant proportion (if not the majority) of such projects would not succeed, that is they would not go beyond their initial demonstration, because this was not convincing enough to attract new research and further developments. Experience has shown that even in such cases, these results may be capitalised upon by some groups and used in helping to redesign other approaches. Work on nanotechnology dynamics and new leading sciences, on collective issues in patenting or on indicators and measures for characterising university differentiation are examples of this and of successes. But previous work initiated on policy mixes (EPOM) or on forum research did not give rise to any direct follow-up. 
Finally there are issues, often enduring ones, which are not taken up, and remain as ‘orphans’ whatever their policy importance. For those we devised the ‘review and initiation activities’ with the hope that this would be sufficiently appealing for some colleagues to exchange ideas on the problems and to search jointly for possible new research directions, giving the research more visibility than previously with essentially policy-shaped problems. We considered this more as an agenda-setting mechanism than a direct research effort. All these projects have proven far more challenging than anticipated and the most successful (for example the one on regional policies and that on the interaction between military and other RDI) have taken several years before bearing fruit.

A last feature of the PRIME research effort needs to be underlined. The initial research agenda had been set out for a far larger research effort, following the initial design of Network of Excellence (that is with annual support of 25 k€ per researcher involved) than the one actually funded (de facto less than 5k € of annual support per researcher involved). This was recognised by the Commission and the contract signed recognised that the means allocated did not enable PRIME to address all 3 themes fully, but that we should nevertheless try to make progress with all three.
In this activity report we report on the last round of activities as identified and agreed in the 4th and 5th JPAs. However we consider it useful to return to the overall objectives and to compare the work completed with the initial goals. This forms the first section, before we address successively the results arrived at in WP1, 2 and 3 respectively.