Jean Pierre Bourguignon | President of the European Research Council

Some Considerations

Thank you very much for the invitation and introduction. You have already given a good summary of what the ERC is. We are totally faithful to the idea that the ERC is funding research on the basis of scientific quality, welcoming initiatives taken by researchers, therefore following a strictly bottom-up approach.

If you allow me, I would like to make three points.

The first one is that we, scientists, have to remember all the time that we are evolving in an ecosystem which has several components, and we have to ensure that the right balance exists between these components. So, of course, as President of the ERC, I very strongly make the case that the bottom-up part of the financing of research must be very significant and that the initiative has to be left to researchers for a number of things. Of course, we know that long-term planning for some specific activities requires developing more top-down instruments. So it is clear that a variety of approaches is needed. At the European level, this is why the so-called framework programme has three pillars, as they are usually called, going from research in different forms to innovation. This touches an issue already discussed briefly, namely how to transform scientific results into activities having, in the end, an economic or societal impact.

So, just to continue on the idea of an ecosystem, the other component of the ecosystem that is vital is, of course, the people, because research is in the end done by people. Therefore, it is very important that researchers, in particular young ones, have a perspective that they might find support to develop their research and a career. As you know, this is not the case in a number of countries where, for various reasons, either positions are not available or they have become extremely unstable or even, in some cases, people feel that they are not welcome and would actually better develop their activities by going elsewhere. So the need to offer a professional perspective for young people is something which, I think, has to have a high priority. Having the right ecosystem is not just the question of having enough money to distribute; it also requires an environment in which people feel comfortable to develop their work. So much for the ecosystem.

To obtain that the European Research Council be set up was the result of a long battle by the scientific community. Personally, the first time I heard about the possibility of having an ERC was 1995. So it took twelve years to get it off the ground, and there were a number of times when scientists thought they were close to getting it and then far from it and then close again. It was quite a complicated process. Finally, the ERC became a reality and, if you look at the detailed history, there were actually interesting moments where some people played a key role. It is always interesting to consider these turning points, and to see that some of the people who made a difference were not scientists, but politicians or civil servants from the European Commission. I don’t want to name anybody here, but actually some people changing their minds at the last minute made a big difference. The ERC has now been in existence for eleven years, and I think it has really been endorsed by the scientific community. Just to give one example, last year we celebrated ten years of ERC and we offered the possibility to all institutions to organise some kind of a celebration. Altogether there were 164 such celebrations in Europe, spontaneously organised. We didn’t give any money to help them. I personally attended twenty-nine of them, and that was already a lot but a fantastic experience. It really shows the breadth of the endorsement. 

Of course the ERC is providing quite substantial amounts of money to its grantees. This year the ERC budget will pass the 2 billion Euro mark. It will sign more than 1000 new contracts. So it is a very substantial contribution to the support of research, but the point I want to make – actually my second point – is the fact that the ERC has, beyond the money distributed, a structural impact. I think this is extremely important for the ERC governing body, which, as you know, is its Scientific Council, which has the full responsibility of deciding how to spend the money and how to set up the evaluation.

What do I mean by structural impact? Of course the ERC is very competitive, its success rate this year will be around 13%. We are fully aware that preparing an application requires a lot of work, but now people know that, in order to be successful, they have to come up with ambitious ideas and provide some evidence that they have the potential to achieve these ideas. For a number of young people – I heard many testimonies to this effect – preparing an ERC application was the first instance ever where they had the opportunity to express what they really wanted to do in the coming five years. The ERC has lifted the ambition of European researchers.

From that point of view the ERC really gives to a number of people, not only young ones, an opportunity to devevlop a really ambitious objective. Actually, in some countries, the fact that young people are given such possibilities is structurally not so obvious as, there, young researchers have to do what their bosses tell them to do. 

This is one of the impacts. There are also various mechanisms by which the ERC makes sure that researchers really have the control of things. One of them, that is sometimes misunderstood, is portability. What does that mean? Simply that a researcher who has won an ERC grant hosted at an institution can decide, for one reason or another, to move to another organisation. Actually, it is not used often but it is some sort of a nuclear weapon in the hands of researchers. Indeed, if an ERC grantee tells his or her president, vice-chancellor or rector, “Well, maybe I’m going to go elsewhere”, because things are not going the way they should – sometimes because the institution abuses a little bit and refuses to address problems pointed to it by the researcher – usually the problem gets solved. So it shows that portability empowers researchers, which I think is very important.

My third point has to do with interdisciplinarity, a topic which is critical to achieve a number of results, as we heard today. Often, to really make things happen, you have to bring together people having competences in domains that are not so close to one another. From that point of view most of the ERC panels are already pluridisciplinary, but we know that some progress can still be made. Indeed people working in fields that are truly mixing two disciplines often do not get a fair evaluation. One initiative the ERC Scientific Council took to address this challenge was to create a new space for that in the form of a new type of grant. Ordinary ERC grants are given under the responsibility of one Principle Investigator, young or not so young. We decided to reinstate the so-called Synergy Grants which allow a group of two, three or four researchers to call for joint support to a common project. We did that in particular with the hope – and I think it is actually happening – that people coming from different backgrounds, different fields, will join forces in truly creative ways to deal with really major scientific problems. In doing that we stick to a strictly bottom-up approach. We need to make the scientific community ready, intellectually, to work across disciplines. To achieve that, it is very important to make sure there are institutions or programmes in which such an approach is welcome. And to show that this is not so easy I am coming again to my idea of an ecosystem. Pluridisciplinarity is actually not obvious at all because most of the academic life, I am sure you are all aware of that, tends to still be organized on the basis of departments and disciplines. Promotions tend to be more difficult for people who have been working in several domains. The members of the ERC Scientific Council have always in mind the need to promote interdisciplinarity. We don’t have any thematic priority, but we work at welcoming and making it easy for people who want to practice research in this way to do it and to get support.

Thank you very much for your attention.