As the year draws to a close (and my mandate too for that matter), the time has come for me to look back at my past six momentous years at the helm of the ERC. I feel I have much to look back on and be grateful for – it has been a truly exhilarating experience towards the end of my career that actually was not planned at all.
After having just retired as IHES Director and with plans to continue visiting several mathematical institutes in the world, my life took a different turn. After being prompted by several organisations, I eventually accepted to be nominated for the post of next ERC President. Taking over from Helga Nowotny, whom I had met in connection to our European engagements, was an exciting prospect for me. I already knew the organisation, having followed the struggle that occurred over its creation and having served from 2007 as its first panel chair for mathematics.
But above all, it was a huge responsibility – how does one keep the success of such a magnificent enterprise which has grown into one of the most prestigious funding bodies in the world and a beacon for excellent research? Well, it has taken hard work from many people. Taking stock, one of the things I’m most proud of during my tenure is the sustained success of the ERC. It sounds trivial but actually it is not, as routine can kill the very best things. This meant keeping the machinery running – and it did so very smoothly – whilst also developing and fine-tuning the ERC strategy together with my esteemed fellow Scientific Council members, whom I want to thank for their decisive engagement. I am especially pleased to have clearly kept the ERC’s focus on truly bottom-up frontier research - as the 2019 Nobel laureate and recipient of ERC funding Sir Peter Ratcliffe put it, “it is important to derive knowledge for its own sake”.
It’s been an immense privilege to have seen thousands of bright minds across our continent, many of them early in their careers, receive the trust and backing from the ERC to go after their most daring ideas. I have especially valued the countless meetings with many of these grantees in person, listening to and being inspired by their stories. As the ERC is about top curiosity-driven research, it comes as no surprise that an overwhelming number of them have already made breakthroughs and advances that will continue to contribute greatly to meeting the challenges that lie ahead. It has also been extremely gratifying to hear many ERC grantees tell me that, after several rejections by other funding agencies, the institution that finally believed in their risky ideas was the ERC.
When pushed to answer what my legacy to the ERC is after six years in office, I have cited my contribution to the ERC’s strong and growing presence on the international scene. I have been very invested in waving the ERC flag in all corners of the globe and, during my tenure, twelve agreements were secured with our counterparts globally. This will decisively help to encourage something that I hold dear – global scientific cooperation.
I have also spent long hours working both behind and in front of the scenes to ensure the ERC’s continual flourishing and to mitigate some dark clouds. Thanks to the fantastic mobilisation of the scientific community and, at times, coalitions of Nobel Prize winners, we were able to help steer the ERC into safe waters on a number of occasions, such as when budget cuts were looming. This could only be done thanks to the very competent and committed help I received from the ERC Executive Agency staff. By raising awareness we eventually saw hundreds of articles in the press make the case for the ERC from different angles and ensured the funding was ring-fenced for research. Sometimes it takes ingenuity and boldness to ensure the ERC stays on a steady footing – one of the many pleasures and challenges of this position that I have discovered over the years!
So my call to the community is – speak up! Make your voices heard and organise yourselves! Do it because speaking up for science matters in these days of fake news – it matters to our profession, but above all it matters to society at large as scientists pose many of the relevant questions and contribute to the answers that we are looking for. Call upon politicians to take the long view, reminding them that there is more to it than their re-election and immediate results. The ERC is known worldwide for supporting long-term view research, and I feel strongly that this is the right path – actually the only possible path – to follow in the future. I rest assured that the new Commission will understand the importance of properly funded excellent research, and that the EU Member-States will make the budget of Horizon Europe and the ERC a top priority. They have no choice if they are truly concerned with Europe’s future.
I now bid farewell to an organisation that will always remain close to my heart. I will keep watching it closely, but now I look forward to spending more time with my family and dedicating more energy to another of my passions – mathematics. The last six years have truly been an adventurous journey and a pleasure, and I soon pass on the baton to Mauro Ferrari, who will start in the new year. I wish him all the best in the role.
Let me end by expressing wholehearted thanks to all those who contributed and still contribute to making the ERC what it is today - a success story that makes me proud to be European, because Europe does great things when it acts boldly!