The best address for the most ambitious projects

The mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon was President of the European Research Council ERC from 2014 to 2019. In July last year, he was asked to return to office as President on an interim basis. In this interview with Rolf Probala, he talks about his experiences with Horizon 2020 and about the challenges of Horizon Europe.

Professor Bourguignon, what is your assessment when looking back on Horizon 2020?

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon: When the ERC was founded in 2007, the community of researchers agreed on scientific quality being the sole selection criterion for receiving ERC research funding. This has worked well. When I took office as President of the ERC, its research funding had already achieved a remarkable «flight altitude». I faced the challenge of keeping it this way. We had to continue to convince researchers that the ERC was the best address to hand in their most ambitious projects. At the same time, we had to encourage the most outstanding researchers to work as evaluators for the ERC. We succeeded in achieving both goals. During Horizon 2020, we even managed to increase the «flight altitude». This was paramount because the ERC only makes sense when it attracts the boldest of projects that are assessed by the best of researchers.

Where do you see the greatest challenges for the ERC regarding Horizon Europe?

The corona pandemic put enormous pressure on governments to find quick solutions to pressing problems. This pressure has always been present but corona increased it considerably. I fear that in the future in terms of awarding research funds, national funding agencies will no longer give enough priority to a bottom-up approach based on the researchers’ viewpoint but, increasingly so, rely on a top-down political view. This kind of development would indirectly affect the ERC. We assess research proposals on the sole basis of scientific quality criteria. However, if national research funding agencies increasingly allocate their funds to projects aiming to solve urgent problems, they have less funds available for basic research. Many researchers who usually receive national funding will then submit their proposals to the ERC instead. This reduces the chances for all ERC applicants to have their project funded as our budget is limited. We know from experience that the best researchers will no longer apply for ERC project funding if the approval success rate goes below 10%. The procedure is then considered a lottery, and this could undermine the position of the ERC.

One of the innovations of Horizon Europe is the approach that projects must be oriented towards one of the five strategic mission areas. What does this imply for the ERC?

A mission-driven approach is not entirely novel for the European Commission and those in charge of implementing the mission objectives have always had a different strategy than ours. They look at the programme as a whole and function top down, whereas the ERC respects a strictly bottom-up approach. What makes the ERC special is that it is controlled by a Scientific Council consisting of recognised researchers; this board represents the scientific community and project proposals are assessed solely based on scientific excellence. Precisely because the ERC functions differently, it is important that we remain in discussion with the responsible people from the mission boards. For their implementation work, they need the scientific knowledge and findings and it stands to reason to provide them the content of ERC research projects. In an upcoming meeting with those in charge of the mission boards, we will discuss the most efficient strategy for this knowledge sharing.

Another innovation is the European Innovation Council (EIC). How do you see the collaboration with the EIC?

Carlos Moedas, the former Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, came up with the idea of the EIC. The promotion of innovation, in his view, was too much organised in silos and he wished to create an open space in which innovators could hand in their projects in a culture and environment similar to the one of the ERC. The ERC served as a model for the EIC. However, there are basic cultural distinctions. The ERC is supported by the community of researchers who share common rules. This is not really the same among innovators. We also seek the dialogue with the EIC to create synergies. Our collaboration has just begun. We are preparing a meeting with members of the EIC and the ERC Scientific Council in order to get to know one another better and explore our future cooperation possibilities.

You were the President of the ERC for many years. Do you have special moments during your term that you are pleased to recall?

I like to remember the meetings with young scientists who told me spontaneously that they had first submitted their proposal to their national funding agencies but had been rejected because their projects were considered too risky. The ERC, however, subsequently did fund their research proposals. It always gave me great joy to hear this as it means the ERC played an important role in making this possible. Evidently, our evaluation committees had recognised the potential of the research projects and had taken on the risk of funding them. Another unforgettable experience concerns the Juncker Plan 2015. The Commission wanted to establish a fund for the promotion of innovation. The money for this was to be taken in part from the ERC budget and other Horizon 2020 programmes. In our view, this was some kind of a tax, as there was no possibility of retrieving the deducted funds by means of projects. Hence, I started a campaign against these budget cuts with the support of many researchers. In the beginning, the Commission was reluctant to respond to our concerns. But then, the scientific community moved into a higher gear. We managed to win over several Nobel Prize laureates to have lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels, and this was the turning point. Eventually, the proposed cut of the Horizon 2020 budget was reduced by 500 million euros and the ERC got the 220 million euros back that were taken away. This episode demonstrates that the scientific community is capable of voicing legitimate concerns effectively and maintaining its necessary leeway and scope. This is why I feel confident about its capacity to address the challenges yet to come.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon