Embracing the digital transformation

Secretary general and CEO of the FNR, Marc Schiltz, also serves as the president of Science Europe Photos: Mike Zenari

Secretary general and CEO of the FNR, Marc Schiltz, also serves as the president of Science Europe Photos: Mike Zenari

The Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) recently turned 20. As the main funder of research activities in the grand duchy, the FNR needs to remain agile, according to its CEO, Marc Schiltz. But how do some of the big issues--from Brexit to big data and bureaucracy--impact the organisation? And what is the FNR doing to stay relevant with youth, citizens and other stakeholders?

Natalie A. Gerhardstein: The Luxembourg Digital Innovation Hub was recently launched. Can you talk about FNR’s role in this and the most exciting avenues of innovations you see in Luxembourg?

Marc Schiltz: The idea of the Digital Innovation Hub is really to be a platform where various actors can interact, those who face challenges related to digitalisation, like companies and other stakeholders, and those that offer solutions to these challenges. At the FNR, we are very well connected to the research community, and there is a lot of research that goes on in Luxembourg in the digital area. We’re also well connected to the enterprise world. For a while now, we have actively pursued programmes to have public research and companies collaborate. Many of these programmes are in the ICT sector. Connecting companies with researchers is something we do have experience in.

I think the government over the past five years has really brought forward a number of interesting initiatives, like Digital Luxembourg and the Space Resources initiative. Of course, these are initiatives under the ministry of the economy, they recently published a digital strategy for the future which I think is really important for the future, the use of big data [and] artificial intelligence. What we commonly call the digital transformation now is really embracing, infusing all aspects of society and the economy, and of course also research. The way we do research is changing profoundly. We used to do research in a way that was hypothesis-driven, where we have a hypothesis and then do experiments or collect data to prove or invalidate the hypothesis, but now with the massive amount of big data available, there is a completely new paradigm which is emerging in research, to look at the data as they are and then try to find out interesting correlations and patterns to gain new insight… I also see the interaction with industry and companies, which is really something which we as FNR have built up over the past 5 years with specially-dedicated programmes and funding instruments, and I think these are very successful because we have unfortunately seen that over the past years public investment in R&D has been going up but at the same time private investment has been going down, so we feel that public sector research can be a little bit of a locomotive but for this to happen, we have to support the collaboration between the two.

Space Resources is a very interesting initiative which has clearly given a lot of international visibility to Luxembourg, and also something where research will have a lot to bring in, so I’m excited about that. We’re looking forward to realise the connection there, with new companies that establish activities here in our country and with the researchers.

How do you see things from your perspective as president of Science Europe?  

In the immediate, there are difficult negotiations currently going on to fix the multiannual financial framework at the EU level, and I hope that there will be enough budget made available for R&D because, of course, there are other areas, [such as] the Common Agricultural Policy, the cohesion policy. But I would very much hope that governments across Europe realise that investing in R&D is so important for the future. And the framework programme is unique: we don’t really realise it. When I speak to colleagues in other parts of the world, like Asia, they don’t have such a collaborative programme at all. The EU provides funding for research collaboration to happen among all our countries, and that’s quite a unique instrument.

Another challenge is, of course, Brexit: for science and research, whatever the outcome will be is not positive at all. The UK is one of the leading research nations, so losing the possibility for them to be part of the European research area is something which is a reminder for all of us...research is so international, so collaborative--and Brexit will make it more difficult to maintain this collaboration. That’s not a good thing. I very much hope there will be a decent association agreement to be part of the research programmes between the EU and the UK which would at least preserve some of this potential to collaborate…We may need a little cool-off period, but in the end, any other solution [for science and research] would really be bad. To give an example, currently the research projects being funded by the European Commission with participants from Luxembourg, in half of them, there are also participants from the UK. That gives you an idea how connected and intertwined the relations are between the various countries, and the UK and Luxembourg in particular, when it comes to research and science…the problem is for research, it’s a lose-lose situation. There is clearly no winner. So at least we should make everything possible to diminish these losses [related to Brexit].

Some of the roadblocks cited in the FNR Strategy and Action Plan 2018-21 include administrative inertia and unnecessary constraints. How is progress on these challenges to date?

I can say that we are also experimenting with the digital transformation. We have, for instance, a pilot project to use artificial intelligence in screening projects to identify suitable experts for projects, because I think we’ll have to be at the forefront of these developments as well. We are also building up capacity--I just hired a person to set that up--to make use of our data because we do have a lot of data available from the many projects that we fund, but we would like to make a little more use of this data, also in the approach that we can assess our own instruments. We need to bring in this data culture to find out which kind of data is important for us, which are data maybe that we do not yet collect about our research projects which would be important to have. It’s really important for us in future to have more of an empirical assessment and means to [determine] if we reach our strategic goals by the instruments that we set in place... The difficulty arises mainly from the fact that research is a long-term endeavour. It’s not something where you have immediate, quantifiable results after 12 months. That’s not possible. Nevertheless, we are building up capacity to set up our own programmes and instruments a little more on evidence-based reasoning.

One of your remits is to help anchor science within society and engage with citizens. Can you talk more about the work you’re doing in that regard?

A variety of things. We target several groups, in particular the younger generation, but not exclusively, and so of course we have the Science Festival and the Researchers’ Days, which are large science fairs we organise. We have an action called ‘Chercheurs à l’école’, where we send researchers out to high school classes, where they interact with the students, tell them what it means to be a researcher, what they do in their daily life. It’s very engaging. For most of these students, it’s the first time in their life that they have an opportunity to interact with a researcher in flesh and blood. We manage the website science.lu, which is gaining increasing popularity, which is not just for young people, it’s for everyone. It’s bringing science in a popularised but still scientific way to the larger audience. We co-produce a popular science show, ‘Pisa’, with the Mr Science character which is actually an employee of FNR. 

Schiltz on Brexit: “For research, [it] is a lose-lose situation.” 

As FNR, we can only do so much. It’s my belief that it’s actually the duty of each and every researcher to take part in that endeavour. I tell them it’s no longer the ivory tower, [researchers] have to reach out to the public. And we are under obligation to tell [the public] what it is that we are doing, why it should be worthwhile for taxpayers to invest in research. So we organise training sessions for researchers as well on how to communicate, how to summarise a research topic In three minutes which is a challenge for most of them.

Then we target also the political decision makers because there we felt not many know enough about science [or] the competence, capacity and knowledge that has been built up over the past 20 years. If you look back 20 years, there was not much here. Research was almost inexistent. In the meantime, we have really built Luxembourg as a research and innovation hub with the FNR, with the research centres, with the university, the incubators, so there’s a whole ecosystem built up in, I should say, almost a record time, because 20 years is very short on the scale of academia, on the scale of universities…we have now, for the second time, organised the pairing scheme between members of parliament and researchers. We have been inspired by similar schemes that have been run for many years, in particular in the UK by the Royal Society. The idea is to form a pair with a member of parliament and a researcher, and they spend some time together. Ideally the researcher spends a day with the MP, seeing what he does in his daily life, what does the job of an MP consist of, and then the MP spends a day with the researcher in his institution, his laboratory, to find out what’s the daily job of a researcher. It has been very successful. What we have noticed is that many MPs actually became much more aware of the knowledge base which has been built up and they are very keen also to make more regular use of that because MPs are generalists, they have to deal with all kinds of topics, but some topics can be quite complex from a technical point of view, so being able to draw on the expertise that is present now in Luxembourg is something they find very enriching. So that we gradually also foster this culture of evidence-based policymaking, which I think is so important for the future--and that we have the university, the research ecosystem built up, is invaluable.

FNR recently turned 20. What will be on your radar moving forward?

The greatest danger we are facing is that we stand still because we’re so happy by what we’ve achieved, that we rest on our laurels. I think we should not fall into that trap. We need to constantly modernise our system because the societal transformations and digital transformations will fully impact the research system. We must make sure our research system remains agile. Sometimes I’m a little bit worried about too much bureaucracy, but we must make sure our institutions remain very agile. We must make sure that our research institutions--at the global level, as well--remain attractive places for young and bright talents, and that’s a challenge. There we have to work on providing the right culture, establishing a culture of more team-orientation within our research institutions. Our university and research centres are still very much [organised along] hierarchal structures, where you have a career ladder to climb up, and I fear the next generation will not accept this, they will not find this an attractive place to be. 

We have new competitors. There was a breakthrough that was announced in quantum computing. I think it’s emblematic this happened at Google. 50 years ago, this would probably have happened at a large international research centre like Cern… so we already see that some of the very bright scientists find it more interesting to do their research at a company like Google. It’s nothing bad per se, but we must be aware in our universities and public research centres that there are new kinds of competitors emerging. 

The final challenge is about the data. There’s a new paradigm emerging on data-driven science--you need the talents, but you need the data. And there again there are companies that have massive amounts of data [with] which they can probably do lovely science, so we must see that in our public research sector we also have access and can use the data, maybe a different type of data from public administration, because there are a lot of interesting research questions that can be solved with these data, starting from such topics of immediate relevance as mobility and traffic situation which we face every morning.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Delano