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Keynote. Foresight and research planning in science?

Prof. Dr. Carsten Dreher
Director of the Center for Cluster Development (CCD)

The question of whether it is possible to plan the process of scientific research has accompanied discourses between universities or research institutions and legislative bodies for some time. It is worth revisiting due to the growing importance of science and research results for contemporary society. Research as a process of investigation by the individual and/or societal actors can happen according to chance – or it can be specifically organized.

This contribution shall analyze the new challenges facing science and research today and attempts to formulate new questions the current science system needs to address. Furthermore, it will look at the method of foresight as a possible tool for navigating the unknown territory of research planning.

In the current university-based model of research, the individual scientist performs research within a system of local and national peers. Besides that, others can be characterized as  researchers with specific tasks who work in mission-oriented research institutes, in applied research or in industry. Knowledge generated by research creates societal surplus in the form of spillovers, for example in education or technology transfer. One main aspect of this model is the free interplay and exchange of topics, data, opinions, methods, tools etc. In his celebrated 1919 speech “Science as a vocation”1 Max Weber referred to science and academic life as a game of hazard. He argued that in the development of university careers, “chance does not rule alone, but it rules to an unusually high degree”. The “collective formation of will” can perform selection processes only insufficiently, he stated. Furthermore, the decision over academic fates is also largely a matter of chance because of the double aspect of university careers: the academic must qualify “not only as a scholar but also as a teacher. And the two do not at all coincide.”

The general university-based model just described gives rise to new challenges and new questions requiring an answer. Challenges occur in terms of the nature of science and knowledge production, but also with regard to the globalization of science systems and new forms of governance for the science system.

Concerning knowledge production, increasingly complex processes are replacing the old, linear model. According to the latter, the results of basic scientific research are introduced almost immediately into the development process, which turns them into useable products, processes, ideas etc. There is a clear distinction here between research and application development.

New modes of knowledge production, such as Mode 2 described by Michael Gibbons2 are based on the mutual influence of the three major aspects basic research, development and use. “Knowledge results from a broader range of considerations”3 and “is always produced under an aspect of continuous negotiation, i.e. it will not be produced unless and until the interests of the various actors are included.” Knowledge production in Mode 2 “is the outcome of a process in which supply and demand factors can be said to operate, but the sources of supply are increasingly diverse, as are the demands for differentiated forms of specialist knowledge.”

The combined science-technology cycle4 serves as an example here to illustrate the growing complexity of knowledge generation and – in the case of natural scientists – its link to technological development. 

In summary, the new modes of scientific knowledge production can be characterized by a) transdisciplinarity through method transfer, b) an acceleration of output, interaction and proprietarisation, c) an “industrialization” of scientific research, and d) the existence of new boundaries between “natural” and “artificial”. It can be argued that the new modes of knowledge production have contributed to the increasing success of science and its growing societal and economic importance.

A growing trend that can be observed is the globalization of science systems. Researchers and institutions create individual international networks but, interestingly, global science hubs have emerged as well. According to a study by van Raan5 based on a measurement of global publication density in all scientific fields, these hubs can be observed on the West Coast and, more strongly, on the East Coast of the United States of America. Western Europe and Japan can also be considered as hubs, while there are emerging science clusters in South Africa, Latin America, China and Australia. A very recent Royal Society report, however, comes to the conclusion that “the landscape is set to change even more dramatically if current trends continue”. China in particular is expected to surpass the US as the leading producer of research publications before 2020.6

A different picture emerges when looking at publication intensity, especially of scientific and technical articles per million people. According to a 2007 study by the World Bank, the top five countries that have produced the most scientific articles per million people are Switzerland, Finland, Israel, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The Royal Society has not only analyzed the scientific activities between nations but also within them. The trend towards an uneven distribution of publication hubs compared to publication intensity per million people continues on national levels. “In the USA in 2004, more than three-fifths of R&D spending was concentrated in ten states – with California alone accounting for more than one-fifth. In most countries there is a degree of concentration of research activity in particular places. Moscow accounts for 50% of Russian research articles; Tehran, Prague, Budapest and Buenos Aires each top 40% of their national outputs, and London, Beijing, Paris and Sao Paolo are each responsible for over 20%. Among the most prolific publishing cities, Nanjing has leapt 66 places into the top 20 since 1996 to 2000.”7 In view of these different tendencies, it will be difficult to predict the further development of international science systems. However, the general trend towards international peer networks is indisputable.

Various countries have created more sophisticated instruments of research funding and support as a reaction to these trends. These include excellence initiatives, for example in Germany, that facilitate the development of new forms of cooperation within the science systems or of other innovative research concepts. In addition, a reduction of the division of labour can be observed in national science systems as well as a strong increase of international cooperations. Considering research plans and programs, the increased readiness for joint programming and planning activities can also be regarded as a reaction to the globalized science trend.

In the globalized science system, tremendous investments have been made and catching-up processes initiated outside of OECD countries. Especially in the southern hemisphere, international collaborations on a “south-south” basis have increased. Overall, the new science systems are administered by different governance regimes. The question that immediately springs to mind is: What will happen to the old governance regimes? Will they slowly disappear? Will they be merged with new ideas for the governance of science systems? This remains to be seen.

Governance in the European Research Area will be subject to change in the forthcoming years, initiated by the European Commission. The creation of a European Research Area (ERA) was proposed by the European Commission in 2000 and was endorsed by the EU shortly afterwards at the March 2000 Lisbon European Council. The Framework Programmes for Research have an important impact on the research landscape in Europe. Currently, new legislation is envisaged by the European Commission.

The successor of the current Seventh Framework Programme will be called Horizon 2020, starting in 2014. The support of applied and innovation-related research will play a major role whereas support for social sciences and humanities will diminish. A recent communication by the European Commission illustrated a new understanding of the role of universities, which are to serve as producers of human capital and stronger stakeholders in regional development.9 Generally, as a report by the German Science Council of 2010 suggests, re-arrangements of the actor on various levels occur as a reaction towards changes in research policy decision-making. “The internationalization of science policy is another dimension insofar as it creates supranational science-policy actors (especially at European level), on the one hand, and forces national and regional science politics to consider European or international developments in their decision making.”10 Such re-arrangements affect integration processes at local, regional, national, European, international level and even on a vertical level.

The individual scientist or institution is usually integrated into a sophisticated research network consisting of several layers, ranging from regional and national cooperation, to networks in the European Research Area, to collaboration on a global level.

Within these individual networks of global partners, a good overview of personal strengths and abilities and those of the respective partners is indispensable, particularly in view of the increasing dynamics in the relevant research fields. A certain amount of “strategic intelligence”, meaning the ability to identify and interpret future developments and challenges may also be required. These aspects affect the researchers within their research fields as much as research institutions and organizations as they facilitate the identification of possible courses of action. In order to determine the lead times for monitoring developments, the institutions should have sufficient knowledge of the development times relating to their own abilities and routines. Depending on the complexity of research projects and the degree of involvement of external partners, a planning process has to be ahead several years. Furthermore, the research institutions should include options and different scenarios into their planning activities.

Taking a closer look at the methods of foresight and forecasting, which are necessary elements in the above-mentioned planning processes, institutions depending on external cooperation should develop a structured mutual discourse as an effective instrument for exchanging expectations about the future and as a means for discussing and possibly influencing opinions. Future research planning starts with determining the knowledge   required for future research in a structured manner, especially in terms of topics, structures, societal challenges and developments. In a second step, scientists, administration representatives and, possibly, external partners discuss these challenges and intensify their discourse. Throughout this process, particular attention should be paid to the input of experts and analyses, but intense communication and discourse activity are particularly important. After a final comparison with the available resources and assessments by the partners, possible measures can be submitted to the decision-making bodies. In contrast to companies, research institutions publicize their research planning debates after conclusions have been reached.

Leaving the top-down perspective, the challenges for individual institutions and scientists become apparent in this increasingly internationalized context. Often, they have to deal with increased complexity, sometimes accompanied by a certain amount of confusion. They need to re-orientate themselves among a growing share of “programmed” research agendas and have to be accountable to a growing variety of stakeholders. On a more individual level, the time budgets of individual scientists are ever more filled with writing application and evaluation reports.  

This is a highly dynamic environment, in which the interrelationship between competence, resources and topic can be best described as a “dynamic triangle”:


There is a new need to manage the complex interrelations in research. Based on the decision to perform basic research or research directed towards societal demand, it is necessary to organize the different competences such as internal knowledge, cooperation with partners but also management skills. The basic constituting element is generally the striving for scientific excellence. Resources, particularly funds, have to be mobilized continuously out of the various science systems. The choice of personnel and support of junior scientists in particular is of great importance for the performance of future research.

For all three elements, the respective actors have to perform similar key tasks. They comprise of a) the identification of resources, competences, topics/demand, b) the joining and aligning of forces, c) choosing suitable resources, competences, and topics/demand and, d) supporting and mobilizing each other. In this dynamic context, foresight and discourse activities can provide orientation and support planning processes. Almost all actors in the science system have already used foresight activities at some stage to aid their own orientation and to design discourses with stakeholders and partners. Among them are research institutions (e.g. the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft), ministries and parliaments (e.g. the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research) and research associations (e.g. the European Science Foundation). Those who understand these interrelations in research have the opportunity to develop clever ways to exploit the existing systems of governance in order to let them feed into the research they really want to do.  

Universities face specific challenges because internal processes are inherently much more bottom-up. Internal discourses between scientists, administration and management and external discourses with partners or funding bodies often run parallel to each other. Furthermore, a specific area of conflict emerges between scope on the one hand and foci on the other. Universities are often required to have a big topical scope, also including smaller fields which are less important for research organizations. The requirement to create particular foci at universities developed out of the growing trend towards specialization. A further challenge for universities is the demographic development, as they need to address questions concerning the ageing population and adapt their education offers to its needs in the context of lifelong learning etc. Strategic foresight and discourse activities can help initiate corresponding developments in a structured way.

In summary, it is necessary to emphasize once more the increasing complexity created by the outlined challenges and the resulting need for strategic orientation on all levels. Internal and joint discourses including the scientists on these issues are certainly required. The use of foresight tools to gain more orientation may help, if they feed into the discourse. However, it is necessary, if not crucial to create a balance between scope, which ensures diversity in an institution or field, and foci, which ensures the strategic emphasis on core topics. Foresight may help – if methodologically sound, properly applied, and used for discourse and joint strategy development.


1 Weber, Max (1919): Science as a vocation; 22.11.2011

2 Gibbons, Michael et. al. (1994): The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, Sage, London

3 Gibbons, Michael (2001): Innovation and the Developing System of Knowledge Production; 23.11.2011 

4 Meyer-Krahmer, Frieder; Dreher, Carsten (2004): Neuere Betrachtungen zu Technikzyklen und Implikationen für die Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in Spath, D.: Forschungs- und Technologiemanagement : Potenziale nutzen – Zukunft gestalten, Hanser, München

5 Van Raan, Anthony (2009): Measuring Science, CWTS, Leiden University

6 The Royal Society (2011): Knowledge, networks and nations, p. 43

7 The Royal Society (2011): Knowledge, networks and nations, p. 37

8 Van Raan, Anthony (2009): Measuring Science, CWTS, Leiden University

9 COM (2011) 567: Supporting growth and jobs – an agenda for the modernisation of Europe‘s higher education systems, Brussels, 20.9.2011

10 Wissenschaftsrat (2010): Recommendations on German Science Policy in the European Research Area, p.20