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Europe's New Basic Research Chief Ready to Defend Fundamental Science

17 December 2013 4:00 am
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Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

© Jean-François Dars

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

Today, the European Commission announced that French mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon has been appointed the new president of the European Research Council (ERC), the European Union’s main funding agency for basic research. (News of his appointment leaked in late October, but the commission did not confirm it at the time.)

Bourguignon, who will formally start on 1 January, comes to the agency just at the start of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s new 7-year research program, in which ERC sees its budget increase to about €13 billion, or almost €2 billion annually. That’s almost double its budget under Horizon 2020’s 7-year predecessor, which ends this month.

Bourguignon retired in August after 19 years at the helm of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies, a private institute near Paris; he has also been a fellow at France's National Center for Scientific Research for the past 45 years. ScienceInsider talked to Bourguignon about his views and plans; questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why did you decide to take the job?

J.-P.B.: There are three sides to it. The first is that I’m a very convinced European. I’ve worked to better organize science at the European level and I feel that European science needs a strong voice. If you ask scientists what the greatest success for science in the European Union is, many will say: the ERC. So being involved in that was very natural to me.

Second, the ERC was the first time the European Commission really made a strong commitment to fundamental research. That has to be defended; you need to make the case again, and again, and again. Fundamental research has made an absolutely crucial contribution to high technology, but governments don’t always see that because the relationship is a subtle one.

I want to get the support from companies for this as well. They realize the importance of fundamental research, and I think they can play a very important role in gaining politicians’ sympathy for the ERC. To politicians, a sentence by a big company boss is worth a petition signed by 10,000 scientists.

The third and last point has to do with the ERC itself. I chaired an ERC committee for Starting Grants, one of the very first, and it was a fantastic experience. My panel was really great. It was extremely hard work, because the ERC was flooded with applications, but we survived and learned a lot from each other as mathematicians. I enjoyed this environment and I very much appreciated the people working at the ERC. It looked to me like a place where good work could be continued.

Q: What will change under your leadership?

J.-P.B.: Now that ERC has been successful so quickly, we enter a second phase, which will be quite different. The amount of money now coming through the ERC, almost €2 billion per year, is substantial enough that one has to think of its impact on the way research is organized at the European level. I hope to engage in discussions with funding agencies in various E.U. countries and say: You should take the ERC funding into account and maybe change the way you are funding research yourself a little bit.

Q: Change their funding in what way?

J.-P.B.: If you look at France, for example, traditionally, there was no money available to fund projects. In the past 10 years, this has shifted completely; now everything is project-based, and the money coming on a regular, recurrent basis in the laboratories has basically gone to zero. It’s absolutely critical that the government acknowledges that there is now money available from Europe for the very best researchers, and instead of putting money on projects, makes funds available on a regular basis.

Q: So you’re advocating a move away from project-based funding at the national level?

J.-P.B.: In some cases, yes. Labs that have proved their capacity at attracting very good grants should not be forced again at the national level to submit proposals. So much time is taken writing proposals, it is disconcerting. In light of the massive project funding coming from Europe, countries have to rethink the balance.

Q: Many countries have fared poorly in the competition for grants, especially in southern and Eastern Europe, and this has sowed discontent. What do you tell those countries?

J.-P.B.: The answer isn’t obvious at all. But we must absolutely not go to the situation where every country gets out of the ERC what they put into it -- the principle of juste retour, as the French call it. That would be the worst idea.

There are various reasons why countries don’t do well. Sometimes the level of science just isn't high enough; then that has to be addressed in itself. The most successful country, in absolute numbers, is the U.K., and one of the reasons they have done so well is that the British universities have teams looking for money all the time. They detect potentially successful ERC candidates outside Great Britain and say: “We will help you with the application if you come to Britain.” This has been especially successful for candidates from Eastern Europe. Other countries could try the same approach.

And there are other things we can do. We can make sure that when a person wants to go back to his or her country after an ERC grant, they’re accompanied properly at the European level. Many scientists come back stronger and with more experience, and they are in a position to lift their country up.

We do have to monitor this issue closely; we don’t want to create a situation where politicians in central and Eastern Europe say: “Sorry, but this is totally catastrophic for us.” That could kill the ERC.

Q: Will you make changes in ERC’s existing grants?

J.-P.B.: There have been two rounds of Synergy Grants [a grant for small interdisciplinary groups of researchers that started in 2012]. What I have seen from the outside doesn't give me a very good impression of it. They are completely cross-discipline, and the juries are of course completely cross-discipline as well. But it’s very difficult to come up with appropriate evaluators, because these grants are very forward-looking frontier projects. You need very specific scientists to do that.

What I have seen are reports on projects which were rejected. One report I saw was completely absurd; evaluators clearly were incompetent to give any opinion on the project. And there are too many instances of that. So this program needs to be reviewed very, very carefully.

Q: You are the first ERC president to work from ERC’s Executive Agency in Brussels; your job will include the responsibilities of ERC’s secretary-general, Donald Dingwell, who’s stepping down; you will also be a special adviser to the European Commission. Some experts warn that it will be difficult to maintain your independence from the European Commission.

J.-P.B.: Yes, the position has changed somewhat, and I think this will require new ways of functioning. I will be in the building very often. But after my first contacts with Pablo Amor, the director of the Executive Agency, I’m not worried about this.

There is another issue, however. My predecessor, Helga Nowotny, used her independence to freely express her opinions. My concern is that, with the president becoming a special adviser to the commission, it will be difficult for me to say what I think without first making sure that people around the commissioner or the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation won’t object -- especially if I disagree with the commission.

I am not the kind of person not to say what I mean, so we need to carefully monitor this balance and make sure that as a scientist, I have the possibility to express myself. Of course, my new position also gives me a fantastic opportunity to discuss the important issues with the political people and the administration, and I hope to take advantage of that.

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