Putting European science on the map
One can ask whether European integration in the field of research has been a success? Despite the long and complicated process it has represented, I believe so. It is this integration, and the cooperation between scientific communities across Europe, that fundamentally underpins the creation and workings of the European Research Council (ERC), which has grown into a beacon in this context in just over a decade – writes prof. Jean-Pierre BOURGUIGNON
The trend of cooperation within the European research community has been very strong for many years now. I myself have been involved in it for a number of years, as President of the Société Mathématique de France (SMF), and then a few years later as President of the European Mathematical Society (EMS). There is actually a Polish link here, as this society was founded in 1990 in Mądralin near Warsaw, in the aftermath of the momentous events of 1989, at a special time for Poland and the whole of Europe, Delegations of mathematicians from many European countries took part in the meeting, myself as SMF President.
The process of establishing the EMS – coincidentally similar to the establishment of the ERC – was a difficult one as differing visions were defended by mathematicians from different countries: The British wanted the EMS to be a society of societies, whilst the French and some others wanted an organization where individuals could become members of the newly founded organization. One vision represented an integrated Europe, and the other a Europe by delegations.
Taking over the baton from Friedrich Hirzebruch, the first EMS President who already in Madralin successfully reconciled the two conflicting views by making an appropriate synthesis that works to this day, exposed me to the development of the European scientific scene. I discovered the considerable effort made by scientists, particularly biologists, to gain improved support for research at the European level. At that time the European Union treaties did not give the possibility to support individual research projects, as research was not a shared responsibility of the EU. There were only two modalities allowing to support research: either enhancing cohesion, hence the possibility of supporting networks or triggering wealth creation through projects involving collaboration between industrial and academic partners.
Changing this status quo meant that scientists had to develop some special lobbying capacities. The main argument was that organizing research projects at the European level would lead to much more ambitious projects than at the national level.
After a period of struggle, the argument for the creation of the ERC made significant progress, leading to its creation in 2007, when the Lisbon treaty cleared the way from a legal point of view.
Actually, the first time I heard about the idea of a European Research Council was in 1995. At that time a group of scientists motivated by European ideas were dreaming about such a council but needed to find support from politicians and institutions to make it a reality. The idea behind the ERC is directly connected to the concept of the ‘universality of knowledge‘. For scientists, the concept of national borders does not apply to their work. For them, it is crucial to interact with other researchers working in different environments. Therefore, a collaboration between scientists is easily recognized as necessary. Europe is large enough to create groups of high-level experts. Earlier in my career, it was not in Europe but in the United States that I was often meeting European colleagues. It was time for Europe to create its own means of supporting research. The European Commission played a key role in facilitating the creation of a European scientific community through the first framework programs in the 1990s.
Two politicians played a crucial role in taking the process forward to the next stage; José Mariano Gago, Portuguese Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education and Philippe Busquin, a former Belgian Minister for Education and European Commissioner in charge of research at the time. After many ups and downs, the ERC could finally be created.
Part of the difficulty for the creation of the ERC came from the opposition of some countries, and the doubts in others. Fortunately, now all parties are fully convinced because the program developed fantastically well and quickly grew into a success story for Europe.
The goal of the program was to establish a selection and evaluation peer review process, whose quality would be much better than any national program distributing subsidies. From the beginning, it was part of the ERC’s mission to create a platform where top researchers could propose their most ambitious and risky ideas. From the outset, the ERC Scientific Council members were not interested in supporting projects that were business as usual.
The purpose of the ERC is to encourage people to dream and to come up with high–risk/high–gain projects.
It is indeed demanding to prepare an ERC project proposal. Researchers need to think about something that is really at a high level. Thereby, the ERC also contributes to raising the level of ambition of European scientists. Researchers know that to get an ERC grant, they have to come up with something that evaluators will judge truly exciting and that will push the frontiers of science.
Still, we should not forget that research is an ecosystem involving various types of actions, projects, and ideas that all are worthy of being supported. The ERC is a part of this ecosystem, following a strictly bottom-up approach. Politicians and administrations tend to prefer top-down approaches as they like to set priorities, formulated in a very formal and structured way. However, scientists need to have enough room to develop a bottom-up approach. We realize that it is extremely important for scientists at the European level to be mobile enough to learn from each other and not just to compete, and to join forces in order to achieve something greater than what is considered standard.
My personal mission and fight as President of the European Research Council are to say to some parties that “the top-down approach cannot be the whole story. We need room for scientists to develop their research freely”. The point is to create the right environment that can challenge people to come up with their best projects. Researchers cannot be told what to do. Great solutions and world-changing discoveries are not produced on request. We need to be ready to face the future thanks to unpredictable developments of research, which can open the way to some great discoveries, as we have seen on several instances in recent years.
I believe that, even if somebody has correctly identified the nature of the problem the methodology to solve it may come from a completely different area of study.
This argument can actually be taken further. Take for example the most recent developments in the economic sector, such as those related to digitalization and the widespread use of smartphones. Such practice became possible because researchers, engineers, social researchers and economists transformed and brought together different pieces of knowledge into a single item. In the end, this led to a radically new economy that changed not only the technology sector but the whole world. What made this possible are several pieces of scientific knowledge that were never considered to be applied.
Take for example the search for better communication. The solution to this challenge may come from a completely different background. This is shown very clearly in the development of Google. Sergey Brin, one of the two founders, was just a young mathematician, interested in random walks for his Ph.D. work. In developing the algorithm PageRank with Larry Page, they turned a piece of mathematics into one of the most profitable inventions of their time. We need to keep in mind that there can always exist unexpected connections linking many different areas.
The second dimension, which is very important for me, is people. What makes research different is to have the right people properly motivated and having access to the right infrastructure and the right environment to operate.
In a number of countries, young people are not offered the possibility of developing their own ideas early enough. One of the decisions made by the ERC Scientific Council from day one was to put a lot of trust in younger talent. Two-thirds of the ERC grants go to researchers who are below 40 years of age. By doing so, we know that the ERC contributes to empowering the next generation in a significant way.
We must challenge young people early and give them means to be independent. Part of the idea behind the ERC is that the traditional structures need to be changed, so that younger scientists could have the opportunity of developing their own research earlier than usual.
A key condition to achieve that has been to give the full strategic responsibility of running the ERC to its Scientific Council as the founders decided. Plenary meetings of the Council such as the one held in Krakow in October 2019 are moments where members can discuss the strategy of ERC and its goals, but in parallel also engage with the scientific community and politicians at the national level. The main objective remains to empower researchers everywhere in Europe.
ERC funding has been widely successful. There are many indicators of that. Earlier this month, a scientist who the ERC had backed for five years, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, was one of the laureates of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering “how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability”. He is already the seventh ERC-funded researcher to be awarded a Nobel Prize in just over a decade. Since 2007, the ERC has supported more than 9,500 projects. Each ERC grantee employs on average six team members, thus contributing to the training of a new generation of excellent researchers. Currently, there are about 60,000 postdocs, Ph.D. students and other staff working in their research teams. These are just numbers but behind every project, there is a story. We have ample proof that European Union funding helps researchers to reach the forefront of research and innovation, and helps put Europe on the world map as a leader.
Europe needs to continue investing in top blue-sky research, especially in this day and age with increasing competition from around the globe. We must continue ensuring that scientists and scholars have the freedom to carry out the research they want, without burdening them with bureaucratic or other hurdles. Let them thrive and spread their wings – their discoveries will impact science and the economy, and ultimately citizens throughout Europe. This is what is at stake, and for which we fight all the time.
After six fascinating years at the helm of the ERC, it is time for me to bid farewell to this organization that will always remain close to my heart. The ERC is a wonderful success story for Europe that makes me proud to be European. Europe does great things when it acts boldly!
Prof. Jean-Pierre BOURGUIGNON