08 Feb Research and growth working together
Marc Schiltz, CEO, Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), helps the study of some of the hardest questions; here he tells us why Luxembourg is a good place to figure these out.
How has the pandemic changed FNR’s priorities and what lessons have been learned?
When lockdowns started and travel restrictions were coming into play, it had a tremendous impact on research, and many projects had to be stopped or put on hold. However, quite speedily all the relevant research players came together. That is perhaps the advantage of a smaller country because there are not that many of us. All the CEOs had a videoconference, and we quickly got to the question of what we can do as scientific researchers to serve the country and the world, which was going through one of the worst crises since World War II. Together with the government, we developed a comprehensive plan on how to put our expertise at the service of the country in a variety of fields, especially in the biomedical field where we had built a lot of expertise over the previous 10 years.
Perhaps one initiative, which is really worth mentioning, is that the research actors developed a large-scale testing capability starting in May 2020. We actually had developed the capacity to test the entire population in a short time, which was certainly unique.
What is the timeframe for the testing of the sewage water in terms of prevention?
We are now at the rate of new data about every three days, and the coverage across the country is very dense. We get data from most of the sewage stations. That builds on existing capacity because in the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), there was a research team analyzing sewage water for many years for entirely different reasons that had nothing to do with a pandemic. However, when the pandemic hit, a lot of the infrastructure, capacity and knowledge was already there to easily implement these surveys on a regular basis.
Then our scientists, mathematicians, and epidemiologists set up simulations to a point where they could start replicating what would happen if certain restrictions were loosened, such as opening restaurants again. That turned out to be important for the authorities and for the government. On a higher level, I think it is probably the first time I can remember that the government became so aware and also dependent on data given by scientists to guide them through the pandemic and assess various options based on scientific data. Our science and research system is relatively young here, having been built up essentially over the past 20 years. I think we have been able to show that it was worth the effort, and it is very satisfying. I have been involved in these efforts over the past 10 years, but all the research actors here in Luxembourg are quite pleased, that in this particular situation, we could demonstrate added value in a crisis.
What do you think about the government’s R&D spending strategy? Is the objective of one percent enough? And is it only a government responsibility?
At the European level, we still have a three percent goal, and it is customary that, of this three percent, one percent should be public funding while two percent should come from industry and the private sector, as is the case in Germany, where you do have this kind of one-third to two-third balance. In Luxembourg, we are far away from three percent, but we are also far away from the one percent. We are currently just below 0.7 percent in public funding, so there is a long way to go. I think if Minister Meisch says that is the objective, that is very laudable, but we still need to develop matters. We have had to build up a structure. It is going to take a bit more time. It is not as in other countries where there is a well-established public research system, where universities have been there for centuries. Currently, it is just enough to put money into the existing infrastructure. Here in Luxembourg, we needed to build the infrastructure to start with, so that is the balance that we have to strike. We need to put more money in the system that exists, but we also need to grow the system, grow the infrastructure, create new research teams, and attract new talent from abroad. Again, we have a way to go, but this is what we have been doing over the past 20 years.
Where does the contribution of the private sector stand now, and how do you build synergies with private companies?
If you look at the statistics, it is a bit of a weak point because it is also close to 0.7 percent, so we are not yet at the one-thirds to two-thirds. We are much more at a half and half proportion. To some extent that is related to the structure of our economy, which is very much service-based; and service is less R&D intensive than, for instance, manufacturing. In that sense, Germany is a little different because the structure of its economy is far less based on services.
Our approach at FNR has been to promote collaboration between public research and industry, because to some degree, we think that the public research centers and the university can now be a locomotive on an R&D train that industries and companies can hop on. We have set up a budget and last year we spent about $23 million specifically on research projects with industry which, at some point, may transform or generate new businesses. That is one approach to enable these collaborative projects.
The early days were not particularly easy because these are different worlds, and you need to gradually bring them together, something that depends a lot on people. We have some real champions at the university, such as the Interdisciplinary Center. for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) with Professor Ottersten. He is really one of those champions, and we work closely with him, funding many of the projects that he initiates where we bring industry, public research and the university together. Certainly, that is the strategy we want to pursue and intensify in the coming years.
Can you think of any examples of specific partnerships?
We have projects with the satellite operator SES. Last year, FNR funded a grant where a number of PhD candidates at the university worked on collaborative projects with SES on new communication technologies, including interconnection with 5G terrestrial communication. These PhD students shared their time between the university and the company. They had both an academic advisor at the university as well as an industry advisor at the company. That is one of the models that we use to reinforce these industry collaborations. It has the additional benefit that the PhD students who worked on such collaborative projects quite often pursued a career in industry later. Another added value is that they bring in more of a research and innovation spirit into industries. It is a double win, so to speak.
Which research areas do you support the most?
Within innovation in services and industry, we are strong in two ways. The first is in novel materials with a few niches like composite materials, which has always been a strong suit here in Luxembourg because of some of the industry that is here. We also do a bit of basic research on new materials for energy transition, such as energy captured from solar cells.
The second pillar is everything related to IT, and, in particular, to security and communication aspects.
We have also developed the biomedical health sector with a strong focus again on systems biomedicine and the combination of big data and health. We have set up a big center funded by the FNR on systems biomedicine related to Parkinson’s disease. Through systems and data intensive methods, we explore stratification and early detection methods for Parkinson’s disease. With this type of illness, this is the essential issue because, when symptoms appear, a lot of damage has already happened.
Luxembourg was chosen as home to the EuroHPC JU headquarters, and you also just acquired the supercomputer MeluXina. How will this start to attract perhaps other types of investigations and startups that could also provide some innovation?
These developments are particularly important because, to attract vibrant talent as well as startups, you have to demonstrate commitment to your projects. One way to prove it is by developing infrastructure. Another one of our niche areas is funding the space sector. If researchers see that there is a continuously growing investment into research and innovation, that sends a message that we are serious about it and that interesting things are happening here.
It is also about infrastructure because if the right infrastructure is coming to the country that also sends a message that the world is noticing Luxembourg. I think what the researchers and people that have come to Luxembourg sense a willingness of government and of all the actors to carry on with these advancements. They know they will be supported. They also see that we are in a development phase so they can actually help to shape it. It is not all set in stone, which is quite often the case elsewhere, so it attracts the more entrepreneurial type of researcher and actor, which is exactly what we want. On top of that, we are an international place, so it is not necessary to speak the native language. We all speak many different languages. These background conditions help a great deal in potential candidates’ decisions to relocate here.
How do you create synergies between society, academy and research?
At the University of Luxembourg, they have vocational degrees, which have been designed together with the relevant professionals. In particular, finance degrees are actively co-designed with the appropriate representatives and actors from the finance sector, which is one of our key industries. That is the advantage of being a small country. It is not difficult to have the pertinent people around the table to get the ball rolling. This is the dynamic that has been followed to design a number of degrees which are significant for the country.
From a wider perspective, I think the challenge going forward is to put science and research at the fore. We have worked hard to establish a connection with industry and companies, but we need to pursue it further. We have also made an enormous effort to create an international network. At FNR, one of my priorities has been to establish international connections and to have our researchers embedded in this international association of research. The number of international collaboration projects that we fund is increasing, which is an excellent sign, because we do not just want to do it in our little country. We need to have these strong links.
What needs to come next is how to embed research into society, and I think with the COVID crisis we have made a big push forward, where government has more than taken note. Again, leadership has been very actively using research results and driving, to some extent, the research agenda during the crisis, which is extremely encouraging. At FNR we are working together with the Luxembourg Parliament to establish a network of scientific advisors. Until recently our parliament did not have such a network. Eventually they can have their own scientific working group, but for now, they can reap so much more from our research institutions. Together we will establish a network so that in the future, if MPs have to analyze difficult or complex files and then make difficult decisions, they can rely on the advice and input from their scientific cohort.
There is a lot on the agenda for the future to put science at the center of society. We also have the advantage that science and research have an exceptionally good image here in this country. We conducted a survey with the broader population and 70 percent answered that they put trust in science, which is much higher than in most other countries, so it is something to build upon.
Which fields present further possibilities for international cooperation in Luxembourg?
I think it is the priorities that I have mentioned. It is important that we narrow down our choices. As a small country, we cannot have ambitions to become world leaders in everything, but in these niches, we should aspire to become internationally relevant.
I travel all over the world and have done so since I started at the FNR 10 years ago. I remember back then there was a bit of a condescending attitude toward me, as if colleagues were saying, oh, you are also doing research in Luxembourg, how interesting. That is what I had to face, and it has completely changed now. It is now widely recognized that there are credible and important initiatives; that we are exceptionally good in systems biomedicine; that government has launched space initiatives. So perception has changed completely. Our researchers are now participating much more in international projects as well, which is what matters in the end. We have been increasing our share in the framework programs operated by the European Commission. We are seeing more and more of our teams being invited to take part in them, so that is an exciting development.
You seem to be looking at solutions for Europe and the world, rather than centering on Luxembourg.
That is maybe due to the compactness of the country as well. I think it would be somewhat preposterous if we wanted to develop the future supercomputer just for the benefit of Luxembourg. That would just not be credible, but our forte may indeed be in establishing these European and international networks. We must always remain conscious of our size and what is possible, but I think our opportunity lies in these international collaborations.
Where would you like to see not only FNR, but the research and innovation ecosystem of Luxembourg in the next five years?
I would really like to see us building more on what we have done during the COVID crisis, which means being more oriented toward providing solutions for societal challenges and mission-oriented research. We are currently in talks with the ministry about our next four-year plan to have a number of precisely targeted mission driven initiatives where we can get all the actors behind, not just the researchers. It should not be too heavy, rather it should be something where all the relevant stakeholders have their say.