ERC welcomes the first Croatian member of the Scientific Council

Cover image of ERC welcomes the first Croatian member of the Scientific Council

New ERC Scientific Council Member, linguist Milena Žic Fuchs, discusses her passion for cognitive linguistics and science policy. She also reflects on some of the challenges in the Croatian research landscape.

You are the first Croatian member of the ERC Scientific Council. How do you feel about your new role and what motivates you to work with the ERC?

It's a big honour to be a member of the ERC Scientific Council, especially knowing that I'm the first person from Croatia.

As far as my motivation is concerned, I started off with the ERC as far back as 2008 as a member of a multidisciplinary advanced grants panel based on humanities disciplines, and later as its chair. It was through this work that I truly understood what the brand name of ERC means in terms of scientific excellence. So it’s not just an honour, but I also see it as a continuation of my work for the ERC. 

Before joining the ERC Scientific Council, you were involved in other science policy work on the EU level. How will this experience help you in your new role?

I became engaged in EU policy matters, quite a long time ago. To start with, I was the chair of the Standing Committee for the Humanities at the European Science Foundation. One of the things I instigated during my mandate there was intense work on the articulation of the then ‘new’ discipline of digital humanities. It was through this that I became very engaged in the European research infrastructures for all domains of science. And already at my first ERC Scientific Council meeting in February, this proved to be a topic which I could contribute to.

As another example, I was one of the 12 members of the EC high-level group on maximising the impact of EU research and innovation programmes (the Lamy Group). The group articulated, through a report, what we hope will become the basis for the EU’s research and innovation funding programme from 2021 to 2026: “Horizon Europe”. For example, the notion of ‘missions’ in Horizon Europe was developed in this document.

I really enjoy this kind of work because you can see how something that starts off as a very simple idea develops into something huge for the benefit of all researchers.


In addition to being a professor of linguistics, you are actively involved in multidisciplinary research. Could you tell us a bit about your journey from being a researcher in your own field to working across disciplines?


I started off as a traditional linguist, however during my graduate studies in the United States I got immersed into what today we call ‘cognitive linguistics’, an interdisciplinary theoretical framework that combines knowledge from different disciplines such as linguistics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, etc. This was in the 1980s, during my doctoral studies, and was instrumental in providing a framework within which I could do my research that was in total accordance with how I saw that languages actually function.

Once you start doing cognitive linguistics, you start asking research questions that go beyond linguistics, and cognition is by default connected with the brain. I was very lucky to have been invited to work in the Croatian Brain Institute and see how linguistics can contribute to their research. Today I support a group of young researchers there who are focused on early language development, with a special emphasis on obtaining data from Croatian speakers. I am also working on a pilot study with neuroscientists on language diversity.

One thing that I will say for multidisciplinarity is that I see it as the future for many major research questions. In order to answer what some people quite rightly call ‘the wicked questions of today’, like climate change, etc. multidisciplinarity is a must.


What is the research landscape in Croatia like at the moment? What are some of the challenges?


When we look at the research landscape in Croatia, one of the fundamental problems is financial: very little is provided for research regardless of which domain we are speaking about.

To change this, I think that the Croatian academic community should make an extra effort in trying to influence politicians. The link between research and solving major societal problems has so far not been a part of the public discourse in Croatia and it should be. However, with the current coronavirus epidemic, the importance of science has been recognized by the Croatian general public, and henceforth the politicians.

The other big challenge is that Croatian researchers should engage more in science policy activities, particularly the ones at the EU level. Such engagements can provide benefits for the wide community of researchers at the national level. An important step is also getting early career researchers to engage in science policy, and it is something that should be done very systematically. I think that a little push in this direction would mean a great deal for many people.


How well does Croatia do when it comes to participating in ERC-funded research? What could be done to improve the country’s participation?


Last year Croatian researchers won three ERC Grants which was kind of a breakthrough. Hopefully in the future there'll be even more.

As far as the improvement in participation, one thing that could be done is making the Croatian academic community aware of what an ERC grant really and truly means, and what are the unbelievable opportunities that it offers.

For quite a number of years when I used to say that I worked for the ERC people in Croatia wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

I was counting on the Croatian Presidency to help increase the visibility of the ERC in the Croatian research community, but due to the COVID19 crisis many of the planned events were cancelled. Still I hope that this unprecedented health crisis will cast a spotlight on the importance of basic research, and that more Croatian scholars and researchers will become aware of the great opportunity that the ERC funding offers in months to come.


What message would you send to Croatian researchers to encourage more of them to apply for ERC funding?


I would tell them to be persistent and not to give up. Even if they don’t get over the threshold the first time, they should take advantage of all the input they get from the external reviewers, panel members, and reapply. Rather than seeing it as a failure, they should see it as a learning opportunity: experience shows that researchers who keep trying, eventually can succeed.