Prof. Jean-Pierre BOURGUIGNON: The Future of European science

The Future of European science

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Prof. Jean-Pierre BOURGUIGNON

President of the European Research Council from January 2014. Director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS) from 1994 till 2013. French mathematician dealing with differential geometry.

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If Europe does not pull itself together and rethink how it can take advantage of its scientific talent to keep its role in the world, whilst keeping our common values – freedom of research, cooperation and peace – it will face a major decline on the global arena.

.It is very timely to reflect on the place and impact of research at this moment in time, when the European Union has just launched the Conference on the Future of Europe on Europe Day, 9 May.

The experience of the recent European budget negotiations in July 2020, when more than 15% of the research and innovation budget of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme was cut by national leaders at the European Council summit, shows very clearly a lack of understanding of the essential role research and innovation play in tackling the political priorities. These priorities – climate change, the carbon transition, the digital transition with Artificial Intelligence, health issues – were set by the same leaders at this summit. It underlines the urgency of a serious discussion about how to give enough consideration to research and innovation in order to pave the way for a prosperous future for Europe. Indeed it would be inconsistent to set political objectives such as the current ones, requiring a number of major transitions from European society, whilst making research, development and innovation secondary priorities. There is no future for a Europe that does not rely on its knowledge and science, and on its creative thinking and on taking action. To emphasise this, it is enough to analyse the importance that science had in the process of establishing Europe as a global reference.

As a field that knows no borders, science has shaped and established the intellectual European elites for centuries. Today, however, the new developments the world is undergoing seem to get us moving in a different direction. If Europe does not pull itself together and rethink how it can take advantage of its scientific talents to keep its role in the world, whilst keeping our common values – freedom of research, cooperation and peace – it will face a major decline on the global arena.

For over a year now, fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has forced decision-makers, but also us scientists, to reflect on the future of Europe and the state of European science. The crisis generated by coronavirus has been a tragedy for millions of people. Scientists were confronted with a serious test of the role they could play in helping to get out of the crisis, probably more than ever before. And one must recognise that it became clear that the scientific community was not really ready for it, although research done since many years could partially be built on. The pandemic affected the functioning of the scientific community, as it did for many other communities. First of all, it disrupted the scientific work of many researchers for a number of months. It also deeply affected the work at universities. Today, it is difficult to assess what consequences the pandemic will have on academic careers of in particular doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows, who were preparing themselves for this very demanding life, both in terms of cognition and personal experience. In this context, the situation in Europe is not different from that of other parts of the world. Possibly with the exception of China, which, after an early drastic lockdown, quickly returned to a more normal functioning inside the country. However, one must admit that the pandemic also has possibly long-term positive consequences. It has led to an unprecedented internationalisation of science. For example, I myself have participated virtually in a number of seminars and scientific conferences for instance in in Brazil, as have countless other scientists. Note though that this was the result of my visiting Brazil earlier. The medical challenge set by the pandemic has also strengthened the need to internationalise collaboration. Already in the early stages of the pandemic, scientists exchanged their results freely, extending their usual networks. The goal was to find ways to overcome the pandemic by all means, and it was a shared endeavour for the scientific community around the world.

But that does not mean necessarily that scientists have made the most of the opportunity this crisis represents. In recent months, when conspiracy theories have been flourishing, scepticism towards vaccines and even the reality of the threat the pandemic brought with it have become real challenges to science and scientists. The trust in science, that is key to guarantee its broad impact, has been threatened, and on this matter a few things need to be pointed out. First, scientific results are based on hard work, but also on patience. Confronted with such a dramatic event as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is natural for people to expect to receive continuous information and be provided with quick solutions. It was a very difficult task therefore, actually an impossible one, for scientists to provide answers to questions that required thorough research and methodical testing. This situation was made even more difficult by a very small number of scientists who broke the rules of science and became seduced by the mirage of media celebrity. It may seem frustrating to the outside reader, but in order to deliver its results, science has to follow its own longstanding rules. Research delivers when it respects a thorough methodology, taking the right steps, testing and verifying over and over again. This process was sometimes neglected by a few scientists who, often for opportunistic reasons, began to speak publicly on topics related to the ongoing pandemic, often misleading audiences and jeopardising the image of science. This happened in Europe too. One example helps understand the issue.

During the pandemic, an article on the effects on COVID-19 of the antimalaria drugs, hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine appeared in the well-stablished scientific journal The Lancet. Then, several authors of the large study on which the article was based retracted their reports, pointing to the fact that independent reviewers were not able to verify the information. Actually, this issue had been widely questioned by other scientists. The conclusion of the study nurtured a controversy at a very unfortunate moment, as some people had claimed to have found the miracle cure. Later studies proved that, indeed, there was no miracle to expect from these drugs. Nevertheless, the confusion about the reliability of the data had a negative impact on the perceived value of the journal, and more generally of scientific publications. It gave arguments to people who challenged the trust put in scientific knowledge.

The Lancet story is a telling example of a well-known phenomenon, namely that it takes a long time to build trust and reputation, but just one misstep can destroy it abruptly.

From this case, we can draw two conclusions. First, the procedures that make scientific results reliable cannot be bypassed, no matter how much we would like to speed up the process. The responsibility is too great for us to open the door to possible mistakes. The second lesson has to do with the way we communicate science. More scientists have to learn that communicating with the general public requires considerable caution, something which many are already aware of. In their community, scientists speak their language, based on common knowledge and the common practice of using doubt and being critical. Yet, scientists know very well that, from doubt, some certainties can emerge. It is key to find the right media that are able to rise to the occasion and to provide and transfer reliable information to the public. This can only happen through a long-term practice of exchanges between reliable sources and trustworthy propagators. Without such solid relations, we will not be able to fulfil the key mission of making scientific results accessible to a wider public. If one piece of the science-media-society puzzle fails, the consequences will be dire, as we have seen in the past and again recently.

During the pandemic, politicians found themselves in a situation that was partially new to some of them, as they often had to make decisions that could affect very directly the life and death of many citizens. Since, in democracies, they are accountable for their decisions, they must consider the consequences beyond the moral obligation. This challenging situation confronted them with the need to keep the delicate balance between benefits and risks. For such an issue again, following a very methodical approach, as the European Medicines Agency does for medicines and vaccines, is the only way. Itis based on collecting relevant data in a reliable way, e.g. before approving a new vaccine. A good organisation of the so-called pharmaco-vigilance is crucial here and requires establishing the appropriate network to collect the data and keeping it continuously on alert.

In this respect, we must recognise that scientists and politicians are subject to different principles of responsibility. We could witness the very disturbing situation of Italian scientists being prosecuted for not having anticipated an earthquake not so long ago, and recently in France a group of people tried to bring ministers to courts for having made the wrong decisions regarding issues that were often de facto beyond their influence.

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less” said once Maria SKŁODOWSKA-CURIE. It seems to me that these words are worth recalling in the context of today’s pandemic as we reflect on Europe’s position in the world. Science is a public good that enables us to understand more. To develop it further, we need in particular to motivate young people. This can only be achieved through the right policy, long-term investment and giving the possibility to develop a passion for science to more of them. Where can these people be found? My answer is clear: in Europe of course but also around the world.

I have always been against considering the world of science in terms of divisions. I think the vaccine challenge gives an excellent example of the need for international cooperation if we look at it from the right point of view. The production of new vaccines cannot be reduced to a confrontation and a race, as it also illustrates international cooperation. Through joint efforts based on accumulated knowledge, the scientific community managed to develop not one, but several vaccines against COVID-19 in less than a year. It would not have been possible without the publication of research results of scientists from several countries around the world, amongst which Poland and Singapore. These vaccines are based on several approaches, including the brand new and innovative mRNA technology, developed by Moderna and BioNTech. For the founders of these companies, it was critical to work almost stubbornly on the concept accumulating information and developing the relevant technologies. In this process, Ugur Sahin, the BioNTech founder, received in 2018 a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to explore the mRNA technique in order to develop mRNA vaccines for various types of cancer. Such people are a great strength for Europe. The ERC is indeed proud to have funded 10 000 bright minds throughout Europe; this was indeed celebrated recently, with European Commissioner President Ursula VON DER LEYEN and many more.

We scientists are used to compete with one another. But at the same time, we understand competition in a different way than for instance in economics or geopolitics. In science, competition can coexist with cooperation. Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to top scientists from Singapore and the Philippines, funded by the ERC and who conduct research not in their own countries, but precisely in Europe. Why? Because no other continent provides them with so much freedom in conducting their research, institutional support and access to a truly international research community. One of the ERC’s slogans is “Open to the world”, and we truly believe in it. We know first-hand the value of international scientific cooperation, which today pulls us out of the abyss of the COVID-19 pandemic. Good proof of that is that the 10,000 ERC grantees hold more than 80 nationalities.

However, to maintain this policy, we cannot afford to be naive. We know perfectly well that if Europe is not able to attract the next generation of quality researchers, we will all lose. That is why I was so concerned last year with a successful conclusion of the budget negotiations for Horizon Europe. On the one hand, ambitious political goals were set in the areas of artificial intelligence, climate change and health, and on the other hand, Heads of State and Governments decided to cut the support to Horizon Europe. I can understand the difficult context: the negotiations for the EU’s multi-annual budget and the establishment of a new instrument of a similar size, the Recovery Plan, required compromises as some governments objected to the creation of such an instrument. But could the compromise really be to underfund one of the greatest tools to consolidate the power of the European Union, namely its research and innovation?

The budget situation was saved by the European Parliament, which proved to be our strong ally, listening to the many voices coming from researchers. Thankfully, the cuts to the research and innovation budget could be limited after months of tough negotiations. This does not change the fact that members of the European scientific community and beyond were very disturbed that such a short-sighted vision prevailed in July last year. As a result, a key challenge for us is: how can we prevent such decisions to happen again in the future?

.Achieving widespread recognition of the importance of research and innovation for the future of the European Union, and of Europe as a whole, is crucial. This is why research policy must be one of the themes addressed by the Conference on the Future of Europe that has just begun. This can only happen if a long view is taken, as one cannot provide answers to deep questions after just a few weeks of focused research. It usually takes years. We must acknowledge though that the horizon for politicians is the next election. Still, a coherent science policy leaving enough freedom to researchers needs to be developed both at the national and at EU level. This goes along with enhancing the trust in science for solving the problems society faces also in the future. We must make it evident that there is no other option but to continue to develop knowledge for its own sake, in particular through the lessons learned from this pandemic.


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