Conditions for building a successful global scientific world
29 November 2019
ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, International symposium for the CNRS 80th anniversary, Paris, France
Cover image of Conditions for building a successful global scientific world

Dear CNRS President, Cher Antoine, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly honoured to be given the opportunity to contribute to the celebration of the CNRS 80th Anniversary, certainly an important milestone for a successful institution.

Most of you know my life long connections to the CNRS, an institution to which I owe an essential part of my career as scientist but also as policy maker. The CNRS hired me in 1968 as a stagiaire de recherche, and I spent 44 years as a CNRS fellow, more than half the institution’s 80 years of existence! I benefitted greatly from the freedom it gave me to dare to tackle hard problems. It has also allowed me several times in my career to spend extended stays abroad and to be on leave in positions in other institutions. So today my first message is to express an immense gratitude to the CNRS for the exceptional support and opportunities it gave me.

Still I do not want to close these personal opening remarks without paying tribute to the memory of Gérard MÉGIE, a great scientist who left us much too prematurely. After a special companionship with him when both of us were as elected members of the CNRS Scientific Council, I had the privilege to work closely with him when he was President of the institution. This provided me with a great opportunity to understand better the complexities of leading a comprehensive research organism such as the CNRS. We shared the passion of being in contact with researchers of all disciplines, an attitude adequate to get any academic institution moving forward and adapting to changing times.

Let me now turn to the heart of my speech.

I mainly want to make three points, in an attempt to pass on some of the lessons about research and researchers in France, in Europe and more broadly I have learned in the course of my now quite extensive career.

This will lead me to reflect on the idea of "coopetition", the topic of the round table that will close this Symposium.

Firstly, I would like to make a plea for permanently banning the idea one can draw a line between “useless” and “useful” knowledge. I am of course not the first one to bring up this idea but it has become urgent that some progress be made on this point. Reducing research to short-term contributions may simply lead the field to be badly compromised.

Of course we all understand the truly immense scale of the challenges we face today in Europe and in the world at large. And I share the impatience of many for solutions. But this is precisely one more reason for making an optimal use of researchers and research infrastructures, whether private or public. This requires respecting their freedom.

Let us remember that frontier research is often what makes us able to formulate these challenges in the first place. Indeed, until a phenomenon is properly understood, there is no way one can deal with it for good. In the case of climate change for example, it is now clear that the scale of the issue was underestimated for so long because we lacked a deep enough understanding of the basic (complex!) phenomena that govern it. Now, thanks to accumulated evidence through comprehensive scientific studies conducted worldwide, we know that “business as usual” will not take us out of trouble. This requires that some fundamentally new knowledge be developed, such as for instance the way water penetrates ice in the context of the melting of the Arctic polar cap.

And let us remember that solutions can come from unexpected and surprising places as we need to let serendipity do its unpredictable job. One of the roles of science is to tell us about the limits of what we can do. We in the scientific community have the duty to explain that we cannot solve all of society's problems by magic. This is actually one of our major responsibilities. Research is hard work and takes a lot of efforts. Taking climate change again as example, we cannot allow people to believe that they can just carry on as is currently normal because a researcher will one day pull a rabbit out of a hat. Technological solutions can only do part of the job. We will all need to make serious changes and sacrifices. To the ways we live, work, eat and move around.

And to identify the most appropriate way of doing that an in depth understanding of social phenomena and cultural environments will certainly prove decisive. So, if we raise expectations for research and innovation too high and unduly restrict their intervention to some areas, forgetting the social sciences and the humanities for example, we will actually contribute to the problem when we should be part of the solution.

So yes, making incremental advances in current technologies matters. And yes, it helps to create conditions where new economic activities can emerge and thrive. And yes it is natural that a policy for research and innovation develops some programmes and missions in these sectors.

But it would be nonsensical to do this at the expense of frontier research. To deprive our fellow citizens of our collective capacity to understand the world around us. To deprive them of the potential breakthroughs that nobody can now imagine because we do not even know how to formulate them. And to hide from them all the potential limitations of technology.

That is why it is essential to leave enough room for creative minds to explore. And to look coolly and rationally at what we know and what we do not know. These ways forward can only come from the work of researchers developing their ideas freely. And because of the uncertainties, undertaking longer-term, higher-risk research will always be mainly done by publicly or not-for-profit funded institutions, universities and research bodies.

This brings me to my second point. The need for us researchers, but also for policy makers and politicians, to always keep in mind the fact that research functions as an ecosystem of which no component can be neglected.

Funding is only one such component, which itself takes different forms, from basic recurrent funding and investments for infrastructures to project funding, between which an appropriate balance must be kept.

We must never forget though that the most essential part of the research system is people: researchers, technicians, support staff. They are the ones who make all this exist and function.

If you are aware of my present function, you will not be surprised if I give a European twist to the discussion of this ecosystem.

The first key step is to understand the need to have in Europe the proper conditions to attract the brightest people to the education system, in particular at university level.

Further, it is critical to succeed in keeping a proportion of them to work in the academic and research sectors long enough to make an impact. This can only be achieved if the various systems in place in Europe provide researchers with a decent career path as nobody would enter a demanding working environment without being given some assurance there is a chance to advance and be rewarded.

This begins by providing sufficiently long-term funding in the early part of the career. In this respect the situation varies a lot from one country to the next but it is not overall very satisfactory. There are indeed countries where there are almost no vacancies, and short-term contracts are the rule. And the conditions I enjoyed when I left school where I was offered several jobs I could choose from are of a bygone era.

If these basic conditions are not met, we should not be surprised that the best researchers simply leave Europe to carry out their dreams elsewhere or leave research altogether. Any country, region or institution that wants to improve its capacity to deliver the best research needs to get these conditions right, and Europe would benefit greatly by providing the right platforms to share best practices for that matter.

What is the contribution of European programmes in this context? It is at the same time essential but yet should not be overestimated. Indeed, in terms of money, funding provided by Horizon 2020, the present European framework programme for research and innovation, is only 8% of the overall support to research in Europe, both private and public. And the way different countries benefit from it varies considerably, in particular for the amount it represents vis-à-vis national funding. Contrary to an image often propagated, large countries such as France or Germany, are low in this scale (European funding weighs 6% against the national funding for France, 4% for Germany but 28% for Bulgaria for example). Remember this balance is 8% globally in Europe.

This shows, by the way, that there is considerable room for improvement for researchers based in France to get European funding. They just need to apply more as their success rate is one the best at ERC (close to 16%). And I say this in spite of the fact that, with more than 500 ERC grants (representing about 1 billion Euro), the CNRS is the institution that has hosted by far the largest number of such grants. In view of the number of researchers in its 1000 “Unités mixtes”, this is a small proportion, especially in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

European programmes have of course other roles than just to distribute money: facilitating mobility as the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie actions do, establishing standard in terms of evaluation as the ERC has done, enhancing cooperation between research teams as consortia and networks do, identifying priority areas or missions, …

They also have some more structural and less obvious impacts: for the ERC, to speak about it a bit more, this can be seen in the raising of the ambition of researchers and in offering a privileged space for truly interdisciplinary projects whose boundaries are defined by the researchers themselves, as Synergy grant calls do.

One thing the ERC has shown above all is the amazing potential of Europe’s young researchers when given the freedom to define their own path without imposing on them any pre-established priorities or local constraints.

I would like to see many more talented young researchers get opportunities like these, whether through the ERC or other means to get their research supported. For the ERC this can only come if Horizon Europe, the next European framework programme, gets a sufficiently large budget. The European Commission has proposed 100 billion Euros for it in the period 2021-2027. The European Parliament calls for 120 billion Euros. To get the support of the EU Council will be a tough battle. To win it, the scientific community must mobilise itself urgently and use all tools at its disposal, from direct contacts with politicians to a multiform campaign in the media to explain the urgency and this is the only way out for Europe.

This provides me with a good transition to my third point. It is indeed time that I come to it. Here I want to stress the importance of ensuring that scientists are essential players in the decision making process for the funding and the running of Science.

As you know, I had the privilege to serve as President of the European Research Council for the last six years. We may have forgotten that the ERC was finally set up after a long struggle by the European scientific community to create a funding mechanism for scientists run by scientists.

A critical reason for the success of the ERC is that its governance has been given, as we requested, to an independent scientific body. Its Scientific Council, that I have the honour of chairing, is indeed in charge of the overall scientific strategy and has full authority over the format of the research grants and their evaluation. This guarantees the ERC's credibility in the scientific community as well as the effectiveness of the ERC as a research programme, the focus of its operations on serving the scientific community in the least bureaucratic way, and the process of looking carefully into the integrity of the peer-review process.

Back in 2014, when I took office, my absolute priority was to maintain the high quality of the ERC’s selection process. A task that cannot be taken for granted as routine may destroy it!

Currently, the ERC receives around 10,000 proposals every year. To evaluate them, well over 1,000 high-level scientists serve as panel members every year. In addition around 6 000 remote referees from all around the world provide specialised reviews of individual proposals in their field.

These researchers who are very much in demand have to give us some of their precious time. They would not do it if they did not believe in the importance of the work they are asked to do.

They do it because the ERC has proved time and again that it is an instrument that can put Europe at the forefront of frontier research, an essential task as I explained before.

This is especially important in the world we live in, that is changing at an accelerated pace, with new actors moving forward quickly. The worldwide competition for brains has become fierce. Asia advances at a fantastic pace. Some of its countries, such as South Korea, have been making massive and sustained investments in education. China has vastly increased the quantity and quality of its scientific output in the last two decades and does now lead the world in a number of fields.

This is the reason why I have serious concerns about the current mood for reshaping international scientific cooperation. It seems that some are even intent on confusing economic, if not military, competition with the special kind of competition we practice in the scientific community.

Of course it is not for me, or even for scientists as a whole, to decide what relations Europe should have with the rest of the world in the political sphere. Many factors need to be taken into consideration. I understand that, and I am not naïve.

But let us not think that scientific cooperation can simply be turned up or down exactly as we wish, like a volume control. Once people no longer feel welcomed. Once every individual visit or project starts to be questioned. Once our default position is suspicion and not trust. Then relationships that have been built over years, in some cases over decades, can break down very quickly. And maybe even irreversibly in some cases.

So my advice is to handle concepts such as "coopetition" very carefully. We cannot do as if we were talking about another chapter of power relations. Scientists must keep the control over the relations that concern them because an open world is the condition for a science of good quality to thrive. This can only be achieved through free exchanges. This is why the world map in my office in Brussels has one of Commissioner Moedas’ mottos at its top: “Open to the world”.

It may tempt some politicians – at some risk and great cost – to de-globalise economies and trade and to close borders or even to build walls. But the challenges we face are global. So even if we were to succeed in creating a green and sustainable new economy in Europe, this will not be sufficient if the rest of the world carries on the same unsustainable course. This is the message scientists have to carry worldwide because it conditions the impact that research and science altogether can have on the well-being of every inhabitant of this planet.

My hope is that Europe will continue to project its core values of equal chances for all, respect for diversity, and the rule of law at the heart of our democracies. For that to happen, an international order based on rules, which took decades to build after two disastrous World Wars, must prevail. Scientists must contribute to this goal, and the right way of achieving that is by defending the implementation of these core values in our profession, in particular academic freedom, and their respect in the society at large.

I thank you for your attention.