“We are looking for research which really changes the way a discipline develops”
Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon is a French mathematician and President ad interim of the European Research Council (ERC) since July 2020. Previously, he was the ERC President from 2014 until 2019. Prior to that, he was the Director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS) and had been a fellow of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) for 44 years. He was one of the keynote speakers of EUR’s EU Research Funding Event.
The discussions and the developments around ‘Recognition and Rewards’ dominate the current Dutch research policy agenda. Can we expect similar developments at EU level, within the ERC?
“The task which has been given to the ERC Scientific Council, the governing body of ERC, is very clear: it is to encourage and stimulate researchers to submit their most ambitious projects for funding. The context in which the ERC operates is that we just look at research projects. Of course, at some point, we look beyond the research proposal to see whether the person shows some evidence she or he can actually complete the project put forward. But we don’t look at their teaching capacity or leadership qualities et cetera. The ERC’s task very clearly is only to find and fund the best possible research projects. The most ambitious ones. Universities have other duties: they have to take care of their people in a broad sense, recognising different facets of their work and engagement.
It doesn’t mean we are completely out of the discussion about recognition and rewards. In my previous mandate as President of the ERC I fought against the concept of comparing people based on their h-index or quotations. We don’t feel this is an appropriate rule for the game. I’m a mathematician myself, I never heard a mathematician use the h-index to prove that he or she has done something substantial.”
What is your view on the incentives systems and practices for attracting and retaining excellent researchers (and stop the brain drain)?
“First of all, it is important to get the best possible scientists to serve on our peer review panels. Researchers should feel their project is considered seriously by competent people. This is something which the ERC achieved remarkably well so far. We hear from scientists from Japan, Australia, Singapore, et cetera that taking part in an ERC panel was the best evaluation experience they ever had. Because it is intellectually a very stimulating experience.
Another aspect I would like to mention is that two thirds of the ERC grants go to scientists under forty years of age. It means the impact that the ERC has on the next generation scientists is considerable. The number of young people we have funded is now over six thousand in Europe. Especially in the Netherlands the rate is high: 45 grants per million inhabitants, which is three times more than in Germany or France. The ERC has a fantastic impact in developing opportunities for young scientists and scholars to do what they dream to do. And the impact on their career is substantial. After receiving an ERC-grant, researchers will get other grants, they will get promoted, they will get recognised.
We also do an evaluation every year: external experts randomly pick 250 projects after their completion and look into them. The results are impressive – much better than we ever hoped for: typically around 20 percent are breakthroughs; 50-60 percent are major scientific advances. This result is persistent year after year.”
“Especially in the Netherlands the rate is high: 45 grants per million inhabitants, which is three times more than in Germany or France”
Mission-oriented, impact-related research, market-oriented innovation dominates Horizon Europe rhetoric. How would the ERC look at these when deciding on grants?
“We are just looking for the most exciting projects. Scientific excellence is and will remain the only criterion.”
What do you mean by exciting?
“Research which really changes the way a certain discipline develops. We are looking for researchers who are coming up with new concepts. We are looking for people who are challenging things that are taken for granted. People who do research in such a way that afterwards the discipline is not the same anymore. Either a new discipline is born, or the basis has been changed, or the focus has been transformed. Writing an ERC-project is therefore intellectually very challenging. You have to work hard.
Of course we look at the impact but that comes afterwards, only after the project is completed. Also the impact on the economy besides the impact on the discipline. Horizon Europe has introduced missions and other forms of programmes. Actually, several people who are going to determine these actions have been or are ERC-grantees.”
How can we narrow the gap between science and policy making?
“At this time, when the budget is being finalised, that is a tough question.
Apart from a few counterexamples like Singapore and China, I don’t see basically any government which has a good understanding of science. In Singapore they are finalizing the next five-year programme for research. Singapore is half the size of the Netherlands, their previous budget for science was 15 billion dollars. Singapore is probably the only place in the world where they have a sequence of prime ministers who all have PhDs in hard science. What I mean: we need people at the highest level to be culturally comfortable with science and who can relate easily to scientists in order to narrow this gap. The leaders in China are all comfortable with technology and science, most of them are engineers. In Europe, in France for example, at the top of the political arena many have no idea about science.
Policymaking will also be done at the intermediate level, people in the ministries. Many of them also have lost their connection to science. We can make progress if we find settings in which people from different backgrounds, different professions, different duties meet and discuss. Creating platforms where the interaction between science, technology and policymaking is being openly discussed is extremely important.
One institution which has really understood this well is the World Economic Forum. They felt the need to add scientists to their panels of politicians and businesspeople. To tackle the world problems, you have to take into account the world of science and how it relates and impacts the real world.”
How do you see the EC’s and ERC’s objective of widening participation and being open to the world?
“The way competition is practiced in the world of science is a bit different than it is in the world of politics or economy. Scientists compete, but, in order to make any progress, they know that they also need to collaborate. Science is a universal good. I mean, if you want to do excellent science – it has to be recognised everywhere. If it is not recognised everywhere, it is not excellent. This is why you have to understand that collaborating is crucial and put this into practice. This idea of being open to the world is therefore extremely important. International collaboration is consubstantial to the development of science and knowledge. If what people are producing in science is meaningful, significant, it could be from China, from Chile, from Africa, from Europe, it doesn’t matter. In my office in Brussels, I have the world map at the wall facing my desk – at the top is written: ‘Open to the world’. It is something we all have to keep in mind all the time. It is a core value of science.”