Today, 18 June, and tomorrow, 19 June, the University of Münster will host the annual Federal Conference of the "EU Cooperation Centre for Science Organisations" (KoWi). Around 350 experts from science and politics will meet in Münster to discuss current developments in European research policy and funding. On this occasion the President of the European Research Council (ERC), Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, describes the role of European research policy.
Do you often visit Germany?
I visit Germany regularly; lately I was in Hessen to meet the research community and the regional Science Minister Dorn, amongst others. I have also been on visits to numerous other cities in the country. I’m very pleased to be in Münster this time, a city I visited several times as a mathematician. Germany plays an important role in European research. Over 1300 Grants of the European Research Council have been awarded to researchers in German host institutions. It has always been a pleasure for me to visit the country to get a first-hand picture of the research and how the ERC-funds have helped push up the quality and the ambition of the research.
The funding measures of the European Research Council support so-called "frontier research”. Which research topics or projects are particularly strong in the EU?
The ERC supports all fields of research, ranging from Physical Sciences and Engineering, and Life Sciences to Social Sciences and Humanities. The ERC panels selected strong projects across all areas, and many of them are interdisciplinary - that’s part of the strength that the ERC brings to research conducted in Europe. Just to name a recent example: We are proud to have funded a project that led to the first ever image of a black hole taken by the so-called 'Event Horizon Telescope', a global scientific collaboration involving scientists including a team of three ERC grantees.
Let me also highlight an Italian material scientist in Ireland who has developed several successful products from her fundamental work in different areas, from new bricks for Lego and flexible batteries, to special equipment for Formula 1 tires.
You are the Chair of the Scientific Council since 2014 and a successful scientist. In your opinion, how has the research landscape in Europe changed - what are the future prospects and current challenges in this context?
Over the last decade, the ERC has had a major impact on the European research landscape. The winning approach has been to encourage researchers to submit their brightest ideas, and to select projects using scientific quality as the sole criterion. The ERC has had a strong benchmarking effect, indirectly bringing about structural changes in many EU member-states. Several have set up research agencies inspired by the ERC model and adapted their funding to follow or complement the ERC funding. The ERC’s emphasis on younger researchers has also been key; two thirds of the funding goes to early-career scientists. This gives real scientific autonomy much earlier than traditionally possible, which has impacted the scientific community in Europe. Furthermore, the ERC has also helped Europe improve its position in terms of most cited articles.
When you have reached the top (ERC has become a reference worldwide), staying there is a big challenge. It is therefore very important not to take the ERC for granted. The ERC Scientific Council, the governing body, sometimes successfully had to mobilise the scientific community for this challenge. It may have to do so in the future again if some key elements that made the ERC a success are challenged.
Many scientists are jealous of the US universities and research landscape. What does Europe offer and the US does not?
Europe has many assets for bright minds. In addition to its strong academic heritage with renowned research institutions and centres of learning including the oldest universities in the world, it is truly at the forefront pushing cutting-edge research forward. It must continue to fight for its core values about freedom of speech and the rule of law. Its cultural diversity is a great asset as well as its remarkable social and health services, something Europeans too often take for granted.
ERC Grants are regarded as outstanding awards for excellent scientific achievements - some even speak of the European Nobel Prize. What makes an ERC Grant so special?
The comparison with Noble Prizes is not really adequate as the ERC will soon have distributed some 10,000 grants. Still, it funds bold approaches leading to outstanding research in Europe. For that purpose its raison d’être is "for scientists, by scientists" is key: scientists and scholars are in the driver’s seat as members of the independent governing body, the Scientific Council. The peer review evaluation is conducted by high-level scientists from all over the world. And the ERC focus is always on scientific quality. This is why we the ERC grant confers status and visibility on research leaders working in Europe and helps to attract to and retain outstanding researchers in Europe.
The ERC trademark is also to always give researchers the initiative - the grants are distributed according to a strict bottom-up approach without any thematic priorities. The ERC's competitive funding is channelled into the most promising new fields, with a degree of agility not always possible in other forms of funding. The grants are very flexible and the ERC Scientific Council fights to keep the bureaucracy as small as possible.
Furthermore, ERC Starting Grants give younger researchers a chance to kick-start their careers with a large degree of freedom.
What advice would you give to young scientists planning a research career in Europe? And how does the EU support them?
I encourage young scientists planning a research career in Europe to formulate what they really dream of working on. Even though they face different obstacles, I believe they should not give up and concentrate on lesser goals. I would also urge young scientists to really push to their boundaries when submitting research proposals and not to be afraid of coming up with exciting ideas for their research - because those are the ones that have a chance to really make a difference.