The European Forum on Philanthropy and Research Funding held its annual conference at the Robert Bosch Stiftung in Stuttgart, Germany on 7 and 8 December 2010. The theme of the conference was ‘Nurturing talent: the role of European foundations in building human capacity in research’. Attracting and supporting bright and committed young people is one of the key drivers of scientific progress, and it is an issue to which national and international research funding councils devote a lot of attention and resources. What then is the distinctive role that foundations can play?
In part, the answer varies by country. In many European countries the issue is how to attract bright young people into the sciences in the first place, away from the siren calls of the financial world. In some countries, training systems are rigid and hierarchical and the challenge is to give young researchers the freedom that will nurture creativity and innovation. In others the challenge is identifying future leaders and providing them with opportunities and career support. In almost all countries there are serious gender imbalances, especially among the higher echelons. In all these instances the role of foundations is, as always, to use their freedom and independence to be innovative, to experiment and, above all, to work in ways that governments cannot or will not.
From this participant’s perspective, one of the main messages of the conference was how different these problems look in the developing world. A number of presentations addressed the problems of building research capacity in Africa, where the difficulties range from lack of infrastructure to the tragic and perennial problem of ambitious and talented young scientists − the very people who should be the future leaders − who have to move to the developed world because only there can they pursue their science.
Set against that were some inspiring stories of how foundations are working alongside universities, third sector organizations, governments and each other to pioneer sustainable programmes that support individual human development. In the best of these, the foundations are playing to their distinctive virtues: independence, the ability to cut through stifling bureaucratic procedures, a willingness to think and act flexibly and, in some cases, genuine long-term commitment. Underpinning the whole conference was a belief that, for Africa and Europe alike, the best investment for the future is in people.
The European Forum on Philanthropy and Research Funding is an interest group of the European Foundation Centre. It is a network of foundations and other organizations involved in funding research. It has good links to the European Commission, which was involved in its formation and has observer status on its board.
Anthony Tomei is director of the Nuffield Foundation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org