Fundamental research is crucial to the development of modern society and to the future prosperity of humanity. This type of research is mainly curiosity-driven, but the curiosity of researchers is often roused by their observations of the world around them and their wonderment at that which they behold. In science and technology, unexpected effects or practical problems are often at the origin of research into very basic characteristics of nature. Fundamental research frequently leads to new insights into the essence of nature, the human mind, and the complex interactions between their elements. From there, innovation and solutions to old problems--as well as completely new developments--emerge.

In contrast to applied research and development work, the course and outcome of fundamental research is usually unpredictable. This type of research requires a special way of thinking, often combining seemingly unrelated facts and exploring ill-known fields to produce new knowledge. This is why cutting-edge basic research is so frequently multidisciplinary in nature. Standardised methods, techniques, and procedures that were developed over the years to solve rather clearly defined problems are usually not sufficient in fundamental research. A spark of genius, an unconventional idea, or a whiff of serendipity is needed to increase our understanding of our environment, both natural and humanmade. The required talents may largely be innate, but they need a suitable environment in which to develop.

Influenced by the ideas of Humboldt, universities have regarded fundamental research as one of their core activities since the 18th century. Rapid developments in a broad variety of disciplines during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were almost exclusively the result of academic research. Universities started looking upon the education of new generations of able researchers as an important element of their assignment, rather than just the training of physicians, lawyers, and clergy members. But the latter also benefited from the fact that their teachers were active in cutting-edge research as well.

In the second half of the 20th century, government funding of universities did not keep pace with the enormous growth in the number of youths seeking tertiary education. Universities had to spend a far greater portion of their resources on education, at the expense of their research activities. Some found compensation by entering into agreements with external partners who paid them to do research. At many universities, development and applied research began to take the place of fundamental research.

Until about a decade ago, large companies such as Shell, ICI, Siemens, and Philips maintained research laboratories that, considering the volume and quality of their fundamental research, competed with top-ranking universities. Today, these laboratories are hardly engaged in basic research, and they have shifted their attention to development work. The uncertainty and unpredictability of fundamental research and the resulting lack of profit in the short term forced their management to this change.

To resist this crumbling of the position of fundamental research, a small group of universities, all in Europe and all research-intensive with excellent ratings, recently decided to form a league. According to its mission statement, the League of European Research Universities is committed to:

   ?  

Education through an awareness of the frontiers of human understanding

   ?  

Creating new knowledge through basic research, which is the ultimate source of innovation in society

   ?  

Promoting research across a broad front, which creates a unique capacity to reconfigure activities in response to new opportunities and problems.

The purpose of the league is to advocate these values, to influence policy in Europe, and to develop best practice through mutual exchange of experience.

The League

The 12 members of the League of European Research Universities are all leaders in medicine, science, and/or the social sciences. They are:

   ?  

University of Cambridge

   ?  

University of Edinburgh

   ?  

University of Geneva

   ?  

University of Heidelberg

   ?  

University of Helsinki

   ?  

Leiden University

   ?  

Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich

   ?  

Catholic University Leuven

   ?  

University of Milan

   ?  

University of Oxford

   ?  

Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg

   ?  

Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The league intends to appoint a secretary-general, to be stationed in Louvain, who will spend a lot of time in Brussels stressing the league?s relevance to the European Union, which has already been informed about the league. The European commissioner for research, Philippe Busquin, was present at a preparatory meeting in Louvain earlier this year. He explicitly expressed his support for the initiative, which, he says, fits perfectly with his plans for the European Research Area, next to the educational space to be created by the introduction of the bachelor's-master's degree structure.

The league could make the exchange of postgraduate students easier, and the universities could distinguish themselves in the large European Research Area that will develop. These can be the advantages of the league, but its primary aim remains to resist the deterioration of fundamental research. The joining of research and education should remain a characteristic of the 12 universities and others like them. The league is opposed to concentrating research in separate institutes that are not connected to a university, because that deprives young researchers of the opportunity to develop their talents in the multidisciplinary environment that only universities can offer.

The league aims at propagating the internal horizontal flow from bachelor's to master's. Foremost, however, it wants to operate as a promotional organisation of common interests for research-intensive universities at both European and national levels. It wants to emphasise the paramount importance of fundamental research for the whole of Europe. And, it wants to focus on EU programmes for research grants. At the moment, the EU finances predominantly research with a direct strategic interest for industry. The league is asking for more space for fundamental research across the entire university, definitely including the humanities. In Brussels our stake will be that the EU will become more than an economic union.

The league will not force scientists from the partners to work together. International collaboration has to be given a free hand. Most students and staff members will not notice much of the league straight away. It will start with sharing experience in the fields of quality assessment, best practice, and research management. This is foremost a case for the board, but eventually it will also seep through onto the working floor.