ERC president: Brains should become main resource of Europe

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon [European Research Council]

This article is part of our special report Frontier Research – A good return on investment?.

Instead of funding ‘business as usual’-research, the need to take a long-term perspective is crucial for innovative solutions, but that is often difficult to accept for policymakers, the head of a top European research agency told in an interview.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon has been the president of the European Research Council since January 2014.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski.

How does frontier research differ from regular research and how does the European Research Council contribute to this?

The ERC keyword is ‘bottom-up’. This means that we really want to leave the initiative to researchers, to empower them, and to push them to come up with their most adventurous ideas in formulating their proposals.

For that purpose, we challenge them. The ERC is not about funding ‘business as usual’ research. Actually the ERC motto is ‘high risk, high gain’. It means that we want people to submit even crazy and risky ideas. It means that sometimes researchers are coming up with concepts or ideas offering new perspectives that nobody thought about. And, of course, it will in most cases take time to develop them. This is why, from the very first day, the ERC put in place five-year grants.

Can you elaborate on how you deal with the relationship between short-term and long-term effects of frontier research?

I’m very pleased every time an ERC grantee tells me that he or she proposed the same idea to their national agency and it got refused because it was too risky, while the ERC did fund it. The need to take a long-term perspective is difficult to accept for policymakers for the good reason that they want quick results, for example, to be re-elected if they are standing for election.

Unfortunately, if you focus too much on the short-term, you are going to miss very fundamental results, particularly those for which we are still missing the basic understanding. To get the right evaluation the ERC built a relationship of trust with the researchers because we need the best researchers to submit their best ideas.

When the ERC was launched in 2007, this was really a bet. But now the ERC has succeeded in attracting such projects. Another dimension that was not obvious concerns the sensitivity of researchers with hot topics… without having any preset priorities on the side of the ERC. Take, for example, the theme of migration, which until recently one might have considered a secondary theme for research. In recent years several proposals that the ERC received dealt with this issue in many different ways: how does migration impact society? Why people are emigrating? What is the situation of the migrants?

For policymakers, it’s mostly about control. What are the ethical boundaries of frontier research?

Well, there are two issues. One, which is systematically looked into at the ERC, concerns the ethical consequences of each individual project. Some projects require a simple check, but in some cases, it requires more. Often, researchers have to set up a mechanism by which they report regularly that they have been taking into consideration some ethical dimensions. This occurs most often in areas like the life sciences, but there are also some examples of this in engineering or in the social sciences and humanities – for example, when you need the truly informed consent of people involved in the project.

The other dimension of ethics is what kind of society the new tools we are potentially funding will help to create. Think of artificial intelligence, for example, there is a lot of talk about the systematic use of facial recognition. When such a tool becomes centralised, it opens up a path to a society I personally don’t want to live in. The fundamental basis of democracy is that power is divided between the legislative, executive and judiciary branches. I think we should have a similar principle for the use of data where you have the division between a local or particular use of data, a centralised use of data and the process by which people control over the data. A data-driven society provides a lot of interesting new ventures and possibilities – but at the same time, it contains extraordinary threats.

Because innovation usually goes faster than legislation…

We must anticipate the changes ahead. This means that the ethical dimension must be put forward early on in the process. It should become an overarching concern that necessarily touches directly the legislative process. It is very important that consideration be given to the way technology impacts society.

There is one thing I keep repeating: for me, one of the basic changes we are living through is the transition from a culture of text to a culture of images. It is very, very fundamental. I don’t think people discuss it enough. The advantage of text is that it is a linear one-dimensional object. A text is constructed with argument, counter-argument and synthesis. On the other hand, one has a universal perception of images. It is actually a quite complicated exercise to analyse why an image produces a reaction. This process is much less rational.

We must be careful that some developments are driven by the economy but some others are just a different way in which society changes and therefore, we have to be also conscious of these transformations.

When an ERC-funded project ends, what is the process afterwards?

One of the basic principles of the ERC grants, signed by the agency managing the ERC and the host institution, is that the institution must empower researchers. Anything that comes out of a project is owned by the researchers, including intellectual property rights. That’s also the principle the European Commission always applies – so far it does not own the things it has been funding through grants. So, in the end, it’s really the researcher and the institution who have the responsibility.

Of course, what is critical is the need for us to gather this information about the outcome of the projects so that policy-makers can take them on board and know what the strongholds and the weaknesses of Europe are in terms of research. At the ERC we are particularly proud of the number of young people who are given grants. For many of them, it is the first time in their lives that they have the autonomy and the capacity to develop their own ideas. I think that this is a fundamental contribution to the future of research in Europe. This also carries a very important structural change in the role given to young researchers in the institutions.

But would you say that Europe is lagging behind in global terms?

For more than 30 years, the European Commission has had a framework for research and innovation. For the first 20 years it has strongly focused on two of its missions: the development of cohesion, that is getting Europeans to work together, and wealth creation, that is enhancing the collaboration between industry and academia. Actually, it took some time for the Commission to have the possibility to support research projects proposed by individuals directly.

I do not believe that Europe is lagging behind. Europe actually surpassed the US for the first time in 2014 when it comes to scientific impact as in articles published in the 1% most cited scientific journals worldwide – and I’m happy to say that the ERC grantees contributed to this.

But, as everyone knows, some countries outside Europe, and in particular in Asia, are investing so massively that the idea that Europe has done enough research and can forget about it for some time is just completely wrong, for two reasons.

First of all, to provide disruptive innovation, you need to be at the forefront of research; second, you need to train researchers at the frontier both to be the next leaders both in academia and in industry. This is basically Europe’s only option, as it is lacking natural resources. So it should be brains that are the main resource of Europe.

Is that something that is understood by policymakers?

Too often policy-makers do not see that the solution is to go for an open-ended approach when it comes to research –  leaving top researchers the room to follow their own ambition and intuition. An example of this is energy. When asked what should be done at the level of the European Commission, I have heard industry leaders at the Davos summit say emphatically that Europe should invest more in research in an open way as nobody is sure of what the energy mix will be in twenty years. On many fronts, in particular the ones which are deeply related to sustainability, there are still so many points where we are lacking the basic understanding. We keep telling policy-makers about that.

Do you hope that under Horizon Europe you can expand that activity?

The structure for Horizon Europe is inherited from previous framework programmes and has three pillars. The first pillar, Excellent Science, remains largely untouched and actually it is slightly expanded. The second pillar is more or less a merge of the other two pillars of Horizon 2020 – Industrial Leadership and Societal Challenges – but proposes very different ways of supporting the research with the introduction of clusters and mission-oriented research. The third pillar of Horizon Europe, called Open Innovation, is a plan to support innovation in a more bottom-up way with the creation of the European Innovation Council, for which Commissioner Moedas was inspired by the ERC.

If you compare the European system to other ones, one step that is not functioning in an optimal way is how you go from a discovery or a new research activity to an actual market activity. The reason why this is not happening is quite complex. It is partly because Europe is still fragmented, and partly because the financial markets are not as daring as in other parts of the world – our markets are much more restricted compared to the American system. This means that activities develop at a much smaller scale. Disruptive innovation requires cutting-edge research, and we must look at who can provide such breakthroughs. For sure, the ERC is one of them. 

When you’re looking towards the next five years, can you name one specific issue you would you like to have addressed by EU policymakers?

As ERC President, there is one thing I struggle to understand. The European Commission has been developing the ERC as a compromise between member states, the Commission and with the support of the European Parliament – and it has been a fantastic success.

How come there are still people who feel this approach is wrong? Why do some consider that there should be more control and scientists should have less power when it comes to running the ERC and so on? How is it possible that people have not yet understood that the way the ERC has been designed is not necessarily a universal solution, but it’s certainly a solution which is working. It is recognised worldwide as a success.

Certainly, a reason why it is successful is because it has managed to develop a relationship of trust with the scientific community. Indeed, the ERC has convinced the best people to submit their best projects and to work for the ERC as peer review evaluators. If we lose this trust, the ERC is in great danger.

Do you expect the new European Commission to pay more attention to research?

For the moment, the only signs available are the initial denomination chosen for the portfolio in which research is included, which did not formally mention research, and the “mission letter” to the Commissioner-designate in question. This is a very difficult time with many issues to be addressed. I am sure Mrs von der Leyen and her team understand that what we do has transformed Europe. The ERC has raised Europe’s ambition, keeping top talent in Europe and attracting the brightest minds from further afield.

Of course, this was done by investing some money, but the results have been extraordinary, with countless breakthroughs along the way. I hope that within the next five years the ERC will be better recognised as great proof that Europe can be a beacon, creating new things that can lead the way on the world stage.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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