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.