ERC - European Research Council

11/12/2019 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/13/2019 12:38

Hearing at the ITRE Committee of the European Parliament

ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

Hearing at the ITRE Committee of the European Parliament
Brussels, Belgium

Dear ITRE Vice-Chair, dear Mr Morten Petersen,

Distinguished members of the European Parliament,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It has been a great honour for me to serve as President of the ERC and its Scientific Council for almost six years, since January 2014.

One of my very first engagements was to come to this Committee. I introduced myself to you and presented the ERC's priorities in February 2014. I have returned to the Parliament regularly since then and met a number of you and your predecessors.

And I can say I have always met supporters here. Your interest in research, and in particular in the European Research Council, has been unwavering. And on several occasions your interventions proved decisive.

So, coming to the end of my term as ERC President, I feel a special commitment to report back to you.

To put things in perspective, let us remind ourselves why the ERC was created.

In 2007, Fotis Kafatos, the first ERC President, made a speech at the ERC launch event. This was in 2007 in Berlin in the presence of Chancellor Angela Merkel. His message was simple and powerful, fully in line with efforts by the scientific community that pressed for more than a decade to get the ERC up and running:
'What is the comparative advantage of EU in the future? An increasingly old population? Our limited natural resources?
Investing in Research, which is an integral part of the European cultural tradition, is no longer a choice today - it is a one-way street for the EU.
And the only way to make sure that investment pays back is excellence'.

A lot has changed since 2007. And unfortunately a number of things not for the better. But I think that these words ring even more true than then.

Compared to many other parts of the world, Europe is richer and has a better quality of life. It is not because of its numbers, nor its natural resources. It is because of our tradition as Europeans, which extends back to the Enlightenment, of looking for rational explanations. It is also because of our capacity to create new knowledge and to put it to use, providing a broad service to our fellow citizens.

And let us avoid being fooled by any lingering ideas that one can separate 'useless' from 'useful' knowledge. Here is what a recent OECD report dealing with an 'Innovation Strategy for the future' says: 'Long-term funding for curiosity-driven research must be preserved, as this has been the source of many significant innovations in the past and has high social returns... focusing too much on short term results will put the future seeds of innovation at risk.'

We see this very clearly at work with research into Artificial Intelligence for example. Now, governments and venture capitalists are falling over themselves to fund it. But it was initially a dream nurtured by the pure search for frontiers to machines. And there have already been two times - in the 1970s and late 1990s - when funding for it dried up almost completely. These were the so-called 'AI Winters'. But then a small band of extremely dedicated researchers carried on working in this area by challenging its original principles. And they managed to bring it to a new level. Only now, 30 to 50 years later, is their work starting to impact society at large, while their initial dream is confronted with new frontiers involving many other dimensions.

Making incremental advances in current technologies is important, and it is therefore natural that a policy for Research and Innovation develops some programmes and missions in these areas. But the scale of the challenges we face in the world today is truly immense, and we must remember that it took an extended effort by scientists to understand and make explicit what is going on. This led for quite some time to an underestimation of the extent of the changes, which is only to be expected by lack of intelligence of the basic phenomena. In the case of climate change, thanks to accumulated evidence through comprehensive scientific studies conducted worldwide, we now know that business as usual will not take us out of trouble. So it would be nonsensical to deprive European citizens of the breakthroughs of the future that nobody can yet imagine. That is why it is essential to leave enough room for creative minds and let serendipity do its always surprising job. These disruptive ways forward can only come from frontier research.

The ERC has now proved time and again that it is an instrument that can put Europe at the forefront of frontier research. This fact was clearly stated in the Lamy Report in 2017: 'The European Research Council is recognised as a global brand synonymous with research excellence.' The unfailing support the ERC received from the dedicated implementation structure set up by the European Commission has of course been decisive for such recognition because of the high level of professionalism of its staff and their full understanding of its needs in relation with the service of the scientific community.

What the ERC has shown above all is the amazing potential of Europe's young researchers when given the freedom to define their own path without imposing any pre-established priorities on them.

Since 2007, the ERC has awarded some 9500 grants from its core schemes to individual scientists based in more than 800 institutions across Europe. More than two thirds of them have gone to early career researchers starting or consolidating their teams, for many of them the first time ever they have had such an opportunity. This is why so many of them say: 'the ERC has changed my life'. ERC teams involve over 70,000 team members amongst which are over 50,000 doctoral and post-doctoral fellows.

Probably the most exciting outcome of the ERC is that the results from projects it funds show exceptional impact, as made evident by the independent ex-post evaluation commissioned by the ERC Scientific Council. Just one aspect that proves this: scientific publications by ERC-funded researchers are seven times more likely than average to be in the top 1% most cited category! This puts the ERC at the very top of all funding agencies worldwide.

Here are just a few examples of the exceptional scientific impact of ERC grantees and their teams. They have made breakthroughs in developing perovskite solar cells and in quantum computing. They have led the way in exploring the multitude of potential uses of two-dimensional innovative materials such as graphene. They have advanced our understanding of ageing, gene regulation and immune responses. They have created important models of systemic risk in the financial sector, studied social isolation and loneliness, and looked at how the climate affects migration. They have found ways to measure global cropland and for computers to read human emotions. Earlier this year they played a central role in capturing the first ever image of a black hole!

In October this year, Sir Peter Ratcliffe became the seventh ERC grantee to receive the Nobel Prize - this time in the category of Physiology or Medicine. He was one of three scientists awarded the prize 'for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability'. This is a piece of fundamental research key to fighting a large number of diseases.

These examples are just a handful of the myriad of results from ERC projects which are amongst the most influential in the world.

I am delighted that Professor Antje Boetius will speak to you shortly. Her work is about understanding the eco-systems of our deep seas and polar regions. As you will find out, in understanding the crucial issue of the melting of the polar caps a fundamental part of the process was missing. Her ERC grant helped her to fill this gap.

So, the long-term impact of the ERC is strongly established and lies at its heart. But Frontier Research can also have impact in the short-term. The ERC Scientific Council introduced the Proof-of-Concept scheme in 2011. This top-up grant allows ERC researchers to branch out and get closer to markets or societal needs more quickly. Already, more than 1,000 of these grants have been awarded andwell over 100 new companies have been set up by ERC grantees. One of these, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, sells products for desktop or portable DNA/RNA sequencing. Its revenues grew 246 percent in 2018 to $43.7 million, up from $17.8 million in 2017.

For my own part, I am just glad to have been given the chance to contribute in a leading position to this great European success story after dreaming of it and serving it as chair of an ERC mathematics evaluation panel.

Back in 2014, my absolute priority was to maintain the high quality of the ERC's selection process. And this is not a trivial task that can be taken for granted.

Currently, the ERC receives around 10,000 proposals annually. To evaluate them, well over 1,000 high-level scientists serve as panel members every year. In addition, around 6,000 remote referees provide specialised reviews of individual proposals in their field.

These people, who are very much in demand, have to give us some of their precious time. They would not do it if they did not believe in the importance of the work they are asked to do.

And this is the foremost duty of the ERC Scientific Council: to keep selecting on the sole criteria of scientific quality, to keep inviting and to keep persuading the best scientists from around the world on the one hand to submit their projects and on the other hand to accept to serve as evaluators.

It is vital to sustain the interest in the ERC calls, to maintain the ERC's standards a reference worldwide, and to prevent any bureaucratic tendency to take over.

In 2018, the ERC Scientific Council reintroduced the Synergy Grant after a massively oversubscribed pilot in 2012 and 2013. These grants bring together two to four researchers per project with complementary skills, knowledge and resources to tackle exceptionally challenging problems. In a further development, the 2019 call was opened for the first time to talent outside Europe. The results are amazing in terms of the diversity and the ambition of the projects selected.

When I took office in 2014 there were three issues on which I felt we could make improvements.

Firstly, on the issue of gender balance. In the ERC calls from 2007 to 2013 female applicants had a significantly lower success rate than males counterparts, at around 8% compared to 11%. Thanks to a revamped ERC's Gender Equality Plan, I am happy to report that the overall success rate for the 2014 to 2019 calls is now equal for women and men - today around 13% - with a slight advantage to women! In the last two years, about 40% of the ERC Starting grantees were women, ahead of the percentage of women scientists of this age group.

Secondly, we also worked hard to strengthen the participation of researchers in ERC calls from Europe's less research-performing regions. I proposed to the Scientific Council the creation of a Working Group on Widening European Participation. Over the last few years, the ERC has set up the Visiting Fellowship scheme and run systematic regional ERC widening European participation events. I visited all EU countries (except one), meeting officials and scientists. In recent months I was in Poland (twice!), Bulgaria, Hungary and also in Serbia. In the coming weeks I will be in in Slovenia, Lithuania and again in Hungary.

The participation in ERC calls and success rates is permanently monitored, guaranteeing a fair evaluation process. We raise awareness amongst potential ERC applicants and Host Institutions through an intensive collaboration with National Contact Points. A number of these countries have undertaken substantial structural reforms. We also suggest to national policy-makers, for example, that they support ERC finalists with national funding.

We know there is still a long way to go with this. But since 2014 researchers based in Slovenia, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Portugal and Greece have all seen above average rises in their success rates. And since 2014 researchers based in Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Serbia have all received grants for the first time.

Thirdly, I was very determined to enhance the global attractiveness of the ERC's calls and of European science. Before my term, in 2012 and 2013, agreements had been signed with the US National Science Foundation and the Korean National Research Foundation. Since 2014, 12 further agreementshave been signed with organisations from Argentina to South Africa, from Brazil to China, from India to Singapore!

All these actions on different fronts show the importance of keeping a positive momentum. At the ERC, we continuously assess our operations in full transparency and, where necessary, adapt and update. I am proud to have helped the recognition of the ERC as a reference worldwide.

However, I have one major regret. It concerns the large number of truly excellent proposals the ERC cannot fund every year. Since the start of Horizon 2020 in 2014, each year between 350 to 630 projects considered excellent by ERC panels could not be funded because of insufficient funds. This is a terrible waste of potential and energy for Europe as we are likely to miss some great ideas. Note also that this leads to wasting the hard work that went into preparing the proposals and evaluating them!

Currently, the ERC can fund a little over 12% of the proposals it receives. If we could reach 15% that would go a long way to covering the unfunded 'A rated' proposals. This was the 'scale up' keyword of the ERC Scientific Council position paper on Horizon Europe. It also called for more 'agility', as the ERC must also be able to try new initiatives. But these should not come at the expense of initiatives that have proven to be highly successful.

To conclude, let me thank you once again for the opportunity to tell you where the ERC stands. My successor, Professor Mauro Ferrari, will take over from 1st January 2020. He is here today and looking forward to meeting you all!

Most importantly, the budget for Horizon Europe is still to be decided. We all know that getting it to the right level will be a tough fight that has already started and that needs strong advocacy and a passionate, forward-looking attitude. The European Parliament has clearly stated it will defend an ambitious 120 billion Euro for it. I will leave office confident that the ERC has important allies here to reach such an objective. Having in mind the future European citizens deserve, it is impossible to settle for a mediocre ambition.

Rest assured I will continue to fight with and for my fellow European scientists. Together I really hope we can secure the right means for a sustainable future for Europe!