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8 July 2018
Robert-Jan Smits

With the recent changing of the guard at the European Commission's Research and Innovation arm we interviewed former Director General Robert-Jan Smits who cast a reflective eye over his years working with the ERC.

As Director of the Commission team involved in the set-up of the ERC you were instrumental in its creation. You have previously said it was one of the most interesting experiences you have had in your career. Can you tell us why?

Everyone dreams that in their career they can be present at a milestone in history. I'm very happy and grateful that I had the chance to contribute to the creation of the ERC, a real turning point in the history of European science.

For years the creation of an organisation like the ERC had been discussed by the science community, national science funding agencies and European level scientific bodies. But they never succeeded. I remember that there were endless discussions over the 1980s and 1990s, with few results.

Ultimately it was the Commission that took the lead. But it proved to be an uphill battle to get the ERC off the ground. The project was questioned because of its perceived lack of European added value, since it would fund individual research teams. Why should the EU, which normally funded transnational collaborative research, do this? Big industry questioned if it was a good idea to give all this money to basic research and some even asked about the economic value of investing in frontier research.

Some countries feared that the ERC funds would end up only in the north of Europe. In the beginning we even had to convince colleagues inside the Commission that we needed to embrace the ERC, since for many it was a threat to our traditional research and innovation funding programme!

Step by step we had to find an answer to each of these questions. The European added value of the ERC was demonstrated by the competition it would provoke at European level between the very best researchers - thus boosting excellence. A high-level expert group led by Andrea Bonaccorsi published a convincing report on the economic impact of frontier research.

It proved to be an uphill battle to get the ERC off the ground Eventually we got there and today there is not a single person that puts the ERC into question. It was even great to see that at last year’s celebration events for the ten year anniversary of the ERC, there were so many 'founding fathers', because as always, success has many parents while failure is always an orphan.

What is your most positive memory of all your work with the ERC?

For me, the memories always relate to the people. They make the difference. We had a great team inside the Commission, and also in the science community there were very impressive people supporting our ambition to create the ERC: Fotis Kafatos, Helga Nowotny, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Norbert Kroo, Mogens Flensted-Jensen, Frank Gannon, Luc van Dyck, Wilhelm Krull, Michał Kleiber, to name but a very few. It was an amazing project, as were the people involved.

Some events were turning points. The Danish EU Presidency conference in 2002 which had a very blunt title - "Should we have an ERC?" - set everything into motion. At a 2004 Irish Presidency event, the UK Science Minister Lord Sainsbury went against the advice of his own civil servants and brought the British - who had up to that time been very sceptical - on board. The 2007 launch event of the ERC in Berlin with Chancellor Merkel was another highlight. I travelled there with Angelika Niebler of the European Parliament who had provided us with so much political support. And last, but certainly not least, I should mention, the ERC's ten year anniversary events in 2017.

Do you have particular hopes for the ERC in the next EU R&I programme "Horizon Europe"?

I am pleased to see that the unique role of the ERC is recognised in the Commission's proposals for the new Horizon Europe programme. Increased funding of the ERC for 2021-2027 should allow us to fund more excellent frontier research.

We should continue to do everything we can to maintain the autonomy of the ERC. The Commission should never interfere with the work of the ERC's Scientific Council in defining its science strategy and drafting its work programme. Also the independence of the Identification Committee (which proposes the future members of the Scientific Council) should be safeguarded. A new group of European Commissioners will arrive in 2019 and it will be important that they are made aware of the ERC and its specificities, one of which is the existence of a very impressive Executive Agency (ERCEA) with enormously dedicated people.

Finally, we need to continue to demonstrate the value and impact of the ERC. This means showcasing what the ERC stands for, reaching out to citizens and showing why it is important to fund frontier research. This is why the impact monitoring work the ERC Scientific Council is currently doing is so important. Impact is more than just a great increase in the number of high-quality articles which are published by ERC grant holders; it is first and foremost about how the many ERC projects have changed and are changing the lives of Europe’s citizens. Communicating the benefits of ERC research, during research projects and after their completion, is a big responsibility for each ERC grant holder and for the ERC as a whole.

ERC projects have changed and are changing the lives of Europe’s citizens. The effects of ERC research were really brought home to me last year during the main ERC ten year anniversary event in Brussels. I was very moved to meet Ole Kamstrup from Denmark, who is at quite an advanced stage of Parkinson's disease, but is benefiting from treatment arising from ERC-funded research in this area.

….and beyond?

Thinking back at those early days when the creation of the ERC was debated, I realise that only few of the people that were involved in key parts of the journey are still working directly with the ERC. Of the current ERC Scientific Council, due to the normal changing of the guard, many of those who remember how hard we had to fight to set the ERC up, how complex it was, and how much convincing it took, have left. This carries the danger with it that we lose institutional memory and that we start to take the most beautiful thing we ever did for European science for granted. This is something we need to guard against.

The ERC is something quite unique, quite special, which we need to cherish, defend and support. We should celebrate its successes, but we should not get too comfortable. If you are on top, the biggest challenge is to stay on top. It's very easy to slip. We need to challenge ourselves to do even more and to do even better. Let's therefore do everything we can to maintain the ERC as the best thing the EU ever did for European science.

Robert-Jan Smits is currently Special adviser on Open Access and Innovation at the Political Strategy Centre of the Commission.