10 Years of ERC, a Success Story for Europe with a view on Italy
07 April 2017
Speech of Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Celebratory event "60 Years of the Rome treaty, 10 years of the European Research Council" Rome
Cover image of 10 Years of ERC, a Success Story for Europe with a view on Italy

Distinguished guests,

I thank the organisers, and in particular President Massimo INGUSCIO, for inviting me here today to speak at this celebratory event in Rome. He and I became friends when both of us were struggling as panel chairs in the early days of the European Research Council (ERC).

For me, it is an immense honour to serve today as President of the ERC. And I have never been prouder than during the 10 th anniversary events of recent weeks, and there are many more to come. Indeed, I have heard politicians and policymakers, as well as scientists of course, from all over Europe, and actually also from several places in the rest of the world (last week I was in Tokyo taking part in a very inspiring event in this saga of celebrations), praising the ERC as a fantastic success story for Europe. And I have had the privilege to see for myself numerous examples of the wonderful work ERC grantees have been able to carry out thanks to the Horizon 2020 funding they have been provided with coming from the European Union budget.

This beautiful story proves that Europe can be successful and become the reference when it dares to innovate, even when the obstacles in the way appear at some point insurmountable.

And, in the case of the ERC, for some time some did appear insurmountable.

After ten years, this collective effort, involving people from different worlds – political, managerial, and of course scientific – has created a programme that is being spontaneously celebrated at over 140 events all over Europe and the world. Yes more than 140 initiatives!

Can you believe this at a time when a number of people seem to take pleasure in denying power to the European idea? This shows how wrong they are.

Today I want to call your attention to the elements that, I believe, were integral to the ERC’s success. And then to move on to discuss briefly how we can build on this success together to further strengthen excellence in Europe.

First and foremost, the ERC succeeded because it was the result of an organic initiative of the scientific community. The community wanted a simple programme providing attractive, long-term funding to allow researchers to pursue their own ideas, however ambitious if not crazy. A programme whose only criterion for selection is scientific quality aiming for excellence.

Secondly, even after the idea was taken up, it could never have worked without the dedication and support of three key groups of people. Indeed the ERC is a people’s story as many other human enterprises. The first group consisted of members of the scientific community who embraced the ERC and gave their time and energy to work on its evaluation panels and yes of course also members of its Scientific Council. Second, I would also like to praise the wonderful commitment of the staff and management of the Executive Agency in charge of the ERC, who made it possible to deliver the quality service required. And lastly I want to thank supporters of the ERC in all of the EU institutions, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the governments of members of the European Union and its associated countries that have provided the means for the ERC to develop in two consecutive framework programmes. I am fully aware that, in a number of instances, the discussions about granting adequate means for the ERC were tough, as to support the ERC was often a risky stance to take.

The present members of the ERC Scientific Council, which has the responsibility of defining the annual work programme determining how the money is spent, how the evaluation is organised and of supervising the work of the Executive Agency, are fully committed to continue this battle.

Of course totally decisive for the continued success was the quality of the work carried out by the researchers funded by the ERC but this speaks for itself. We know that many breakthroughs and many major scientific advances have been produced, in all areas of research, including the social sciences and the humanities. But we should never forget that the intention of the founding mothers and fathers of the ERC was to do more than just fund excellent research projects. Their idea was much more ambitious than that; they thought that the dynamics set by the ERC would help decisively raise the level and ambition of research in Europe. I think one can say that their dream has become a reality proving the power of Europe when it works together with the right formula to share the power.

This broader effect should happen in several ways that it are worth listing. The ERC grantees themselves should be encouraged to come up with their most ambitious projects; they should act as role models and demonstrate what was possible with a higher level of ambition; the scientists working in ERC teams should be the seed of a new generation of researchers growing in a very selective and stimulating environment. So much for the impact on individuals, which is evident today. But the results of the ERC calls should also provide benchmarks for research institutions and individual countries. The expected effect should be to catalyse changes in national science research funding policies as well as institutional practices to make Europe a more attractive and competitive research environment. We have plenty of evidence that this is happening too.

Note though that the ERC was never meant to replace funding at the national level. In 2014 the overall gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD) in the EU was €284 billion, about €100 billion of which provided by the public sector. In the same year the EU support to research and innovation was around €9 billion, i.e. less than 10% of the total public spending. In the same year the ERC budget was €1.7 billion.

It is therefore obvious that, with its present size, the EU support to research, and of course even more the ERC support to research, can certainly not address all of the issues facing science in Europe alone, and this by far. Hence, in the present setting, support coming from the EU cannot replace national funding. But it can provide key reference points and support some ambitious projects, as the ERC does, while of course also playing a major role in facilitating transnational cooperation.

Still, for the foreseeable future, the primary responsibility for funding basic research in Europe lies at the national level. The duty of all people in charge either at the European or at the national levels is to find an optimal combination of strategies, each taking advantage of special situations and perspectives. The European Union is a wonderful platform for sharing best practices and reaching critical mass when needed. The programmes it finances with its budget must be fit for these purposes, and the scientific community must make its voice heard to ensure that this is achieved in the most efficient and relevant way.

Nobody needs to tell me about the talent of Italian researchers. Indeed, the ERC has funded 644 of them, i.e. close to 10% of all grantees. However, presently, only 350 of them are in Italy. And, at the same time, only 30 non-Italians ERC grantees are based in Italy. So Italian research institutions and universities are clearly facing an issue of attractiveness at the scientific top level.

It is not my intention to try and give you a detailed prescription of what should be done here to deal with the issue. Each country faces a different set of conditions, a different history which has shaped its institutional environment. As a result, in any given country, policy-makers need to look carefully at how to best create the conditions in which researchers working there can flourish. And there is no unique blueprint for having a successful research for higher education system. But saying that there is not a single way forward does not mean that any way forward will deliver good outcomes.

First, it is obvious that one has to get the basics right. According to the Commission’s Horizon 2020 Policy Support Facility, the Italian public sector’s R&D intensity is 0.53%, well below the EU average of 0.72%1. The tight public budget conditions have led to cuts in the public sector support to the higher education system and R&D.

The government budget appropriations or outlays on R&D (GBAORD) recorded a continuing fall from 2010 to 2014 representing a 15% decline2 . In 2013, the budget for universities was 20% lower than in 2008, and the low turnover rate for university full and associate professors caused a significant reduction in their number, which fell by 22% between 2006 and 2012.

I don’t need to tell you that such a situation makes attracting and retaining top researchers and, for that matter any positive change, rather difficult. Because we cannot forget that the most essential element in any “system” is the people themselves, in the case at hand the researchers, the human beings that make things work.

Anybody entering a demanding working environment, such as the research one, wants to be assured that he or she has a chance of a career, of advancement, of reward. When these basic conditions are not met, we should not be surprised to see the best researchers simply leave to carry out their research elsewhere, or leave research altogether. Any country or region which wants to develop its science base therefore needs to get these basic conditions right or to fix them if they are not.

In particular a sustainable career path for talented young researchers has to be plotted out, from wherever they come. In some countries this has to be invented. Employment and working conditions have to be examined thoroughly; recruitment has to be open, transparent and merit-based, without forgetting of course the need for an improved situation for women in research. This can only be achieved if an appropriate balance is found between competitive and institutional funding. The training, skills and experience of researchers in Europe have to be enhanced. Proper consideration must be given to the possibility of reconciling the professional and private lives. In one catch, researchers need to be considered as people with normal human aspirations.

Another basic principle that needs to be taken into account properly is that researchers be given the time and freedom to explore new knowledge. Researchers, perhaps more than any other professionals, are driven by a passion for their work, a natural curiosity for making discoveries about the natural and social worlds which often manifests itself at an early age.

This is one of the features that strikes me in many ERC grantees. So we need to create a space where this passion can be let loose. The whole scientific community must, therefore, be bold, research leaders need to be broad-minded when evaluating proposals, but also when hiring and promoting.

In conclusion, let me stress that the establishment of the ERC is a means created to achieve an ambitious goal to make Europe more attractive by improving its capacities. The ERC grants are therefore more than what each grant is meant to achieve - for individual researchers as well as for institutions, or more broadly for countries.

Individual researchers should be using their creativity and talent to explore and discover new facts about the natural and human worlds, to propose new paradigms to understand the world and the human enterprise. From this, recognition will inevitably follow even if it might take longer than one might like!

National policymakers should use their professional expertise to best create the conditions in which researchers can thrive where their action have an impact. But it can take many years for the actors in a system to react to the incentives and structures put in place around them. As a result, such a commitment cannot be the project of a single minister or ministry or institutional leader. There must be buy-in across governments and in the long-term by the scientific community. And those countries which now enjoy good conditions for research, do so only because of wise and patient investment that has been taking place over many years. It is never too late to start working on this but tangible results may take some time to manifest themselves. I am conscious this is a terrible statement to hear for politicians who are subject to a rule of game which is by definition short-term.

We should never forget: there is ample evidence that investing in the ideas of the best and brightest pays off, at a time which is not specified, but it is this which will decide the future of Europe and pave the way for the next 60 years.

The ERC must continue in the next EU framework programme, for the moment poetically called FP9. The ERC Scientific Council is working at producing its Position Paper for that purpose, asking for continuity in the ERC structure, for more agility in its action thanks to a confirmed autonomy, and for a significant upgrade in the means put at its disposal. The ERC Scientific Council proposes €4 billion as the target for its annual budget to be achieved at the latest in 2027, when the ERC will celebrate its 20th anniversary. These are the perspectives I wanted to offer you in conclusion of this celebratory speech.

I thank you for your support and your attention.


Keynote speech delivered in Rome on April 7, 2017, at the “Research as Support to the unification of Europe: towards an Effective Scientific Diplomacy” celebratory event “60 Years of the Rome Treaty, 10 Years of the European Research Council”.



  1. https://rio.jrc.ec.europa.eu/en/country-analysis/Italy/country- report
  2. €9.548 billion in 2010 to €9.161 billion in 2011, € 8.822 billion in 2012, €8.444 billion in 2013 and €8.145 billion in 2014.