Empowering a New Generation of Researchers
04 December 2018
ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), Genoa, Italy
Cover image of Empowering a New Generation of Researchers

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many thanks for inviting me to visit the IIT and for the opportunity to interact with so many scientists, among them a great number of ERC grantees. I want to talk to you today about a subject close to my heart, namely what conditions are needed for the next generation of researchers to flourish, in particular in Europe and how can one create them.

First, one needs to always keep in mind that this has to take place in the context of a "Research and Innovation System”, which consists of several elements. And we must never forget that human beings are the foundation of the whole system. The first key step is that Europe must create the conditions in its education system to attract and give access to the brightest people, in particular at university level, and later on to manage to keep a proportion of them working in the academic and research sectors. We can be proud that, after having let other regions and continents take the lead in knowledge development for centuries, Europe managed to give birth to The Renaissance and later to The Enlightenment. And then somewhat later, but not independently of the latter, to the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.

Taking such a historic perspective reminds us that the world is never static. Dreaming of building walls or going back to a so-called glorious past has never been an adequate source of inspiration. This is especially true in the world we are living in today that is changing at an accelerated pace. The competition for brains has become fierce worldwide. Asia is advancing at a fantastic pace after some of its countries, such as South Korea, have been making massive and sustained investments in education, something European policy-makers should always keep in mind.

There is good news for policymakers though, especially as researchers are highly motivated and research jobs tend to be attractive by their nature, in particular because of the freedom of action they offer. People go into research for the intellectual challenge, because they have a sense of curiosity about the world. Their ambition is to work with leaders in their fields or even to create a new field of their own. This is why depriving researchers of their freedom is a sure way of getting them to flee. It is therefore critical to defend academic freedom, one of the key core values of Europe. An urgent task these days if one follows the news!

Of course, “material” working conditions, which include remuneration, job stability or even pensions, and other non-science related conditions do influence which job one chooses. However, year after year, one hears researchers say they are not the decisive factors for job or mobility decisions.

And this is not just hearsay, we must base our discussions on verified information. The European Commission regularly runs a large-scale survey of researchers called the MORE Study. The latest MORE3 report was published last year[1]. What these surveys show is that researchers are willing to trade material working conditions for the right conditions to carry out their research. The things that are most important to researchers are:

  • securing a position in a stimulating environment,
  • having access to research funding and facilities,
  • enjoying scientific autonomy,
  • having the chance to work with leading researchers,
  • finding a reasonable time balance between teaching and research, and
  • a critical element, being provided with some long-term career perspective.

Overall, 74% of researchers in Europe across all countries and career stages are satisfied with their research conditions. However, this level of satisfaction varies widely by country and by career stage. For example, 69% of researchers in Germany and 67% of researchers in Switzerland are satisfied with the availability of research funding compared to only 17% in Romania and Greece and 18% in Italy. A huge difference! But this is not the only difference: 92% of researchers in Switzerland and 89% of researchers in The Netherlands are satisfied with their access to research facilities and equipment versus 42% in Croatia and 46% in Greece and Italy.

For me the most worrying issue is the dissatisfaction of many of our young researchers with their career perspectives. Looking at data by country and by career stage, leading researchers in the Northern European countries are the most satisfied with their career perspectives while young researchers in Southern Europe are the least satisfied. This certainly is a fundamental explanation why, for example, 25% of potential researchers in Italy decide to prepare their PhD abroad, by far the largest proportion in all European countries. Italy is followed by Hungary at 16% and then by The Netherlands at 8%.

It is striking that, in nearly every country, it is the early stage researchers who are less satisfied with their career perspectives. This signals a considerable change in the environment in which young researchers have to evolve. My generation was far better treated. When I left school, I got at least three serious offers to continue for a PhD and I was hired by the CNRS when I was 21!

Today young researchers are often employed on temporary short-term contracts to help carry out specific research projects. This is to the detriment of academic independence, job security and sufficient social stability. It also means that young researchers often feel forced to move, an a priori positive step from a career perspective, to get some support, even if they do not wish to do so. This, by the way, penalises women more than men, and certainly contributes to the well-known leaking pipeline, which sees, over career evolution, the proportion of women scientists diminish step-by-step. On the other hand, either due to a trace of another age or to proof of the power they still retain, senior researchers are often employed on permanent contracts, with progression dominated by seniority and not performance.

This is not just unfortunate for individuals, in particular for the next generation, it is a problem for European science as a whole. Indeed it is vital for Europe’s future development and competitiveness to ensure that research remains attractive to the most talented among the next generation and that any decision to leave the research ecosystem is not only based on a lack of career perspectives.

The ERC Scientific Council has recognised this issue from the outset. In its very first meeting in October 2005, before the ERC itself had come into existence, it stated the ambition to give "a real opportunity to young researchers and new teams"[2]. And it is with this in mind that the ERC Scientific Council decided to give support to five-year projects and to allocate almost two thirds of the overall ERC budget to its Starter and Consolidator grant schemes. These grants – by now more than 6000 of them have been distributed – offer young researchers, who submitted convincing ambitious projects, substantial long-term funding and the freedom to pursue their own ideas. In other words, they are designed to provide young researchers with the adequate conditions I have been talking about, as well as to empower them vis-à-vis their host institutions as the grants the ERC signs come with obligations for institutions and provide guarantees to researchers. I know that some institutions resent it, but they should think twice about policies which too often, and quite stupidly when one reminds oneself of what research is about, try to tell researchers what to do.

Making sure that the most original and high-calibre young researchers can develop their work in Europe is a main element to give them confidence that their future can be in Europe. And here I would like to clear up a misconception. Some seem to believe that the ERC has led to a "brain drain". Take the case of Italy. It is a fact that many Italian nationals have been awarded ERC grants in host institutions outside Italy. But the vast majority of these Italian researchers were already working outside Italy when they applied and received their grants. You will recall that I mentioned earlier that 25% of young Italians prepare their PhD outside the country.

ERC Principal Investigators do have the option to take their grant to a different host institution (what we call "grant portability"). Portability is a key instrument to empower researchers vis-à-vis their host institutions. This option is available to ensure that ERC Principal Investigators have the appropriate conditions to independently direct their research and manage its funding and to make the movement of researchers during their careers possible.

Between 2007 and 2018 around 15% of ERC Principal Investigators requested portability either before or after grant signature. The majority (63%) of portability cases involved a move to another institution within the same country. Altogether then, only around 6% of ERC grantees have used portability to move between countries. In the case of Italy, there has been 16 more such moves towards the country than moves in the opposite direction. What we see in reality is how the ERC can accompany and catalyse the efforts of ambitious countries and institutions. The IIT here in Genova is a great example of this process in action. Inaugurated only in 2006, it now hosts 29 ERC grantees. I was of course delighted to meet many of them yesterday during my visit to the labs and to listen to all of them here today!

The ERC grants give great opportunities to young researchers to establish themselves as independent actors with adequate means to develop their own projects. Such pushes come very often at critical stages of the researcher’s careers. Beyond the material means, it also very effectively widens their network and gives them much more visibility.

ERC grantees set an inspirational example for bottom-up research in Europe. They raise Europe's profile very significantly at the international level. It encourages European universities and research organisations to assess their relative strengths and weaknesses, brings about reforms and offers more attractive conditions for researchers, in particular young ones.

Another contribution that ERC funding makes is that ERC grantees are able to start or consolidate their own teams. Each ERC grantees has on average 7.5 team members with over 50% of them being doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows. This means that ERC grants also provide opportunities to thousands of the earliest stage researchers to get invaluable experience working with a highly motivated Principal Investigator on a cutting-edge project.

So the European Research Council is playing its part. But the ERC cannot address these problems alone. A concerted effort by the authorities and institutions across Europe is required. One critical aspect of the solution to create the right conditions is to ensure that open, transparent and merit-based recruitment procedures are in place in public research institutions across Europe. In many Member States public research institutions, and in particular universities, often have little autonomy over hiring. So whereas private sector recruitment in Europe is mostly open and competitive, internal recruitment is still widespread in the public sector.

Researchers are a relatively small and highly specialised workforce. Therefore it will not always be possible to find the best qualified researcher within any single national system, let alone within a single institution. The widespread adoption of open recruitment in the public sector is therefore likely to improve Europe's research performance as well as providing more opportunities for talented researchers.

The ERC's peer-review evaluation process has been carefully designed to evaluate projects solely on their scientific quality, while checking whether the proponent has shown evidence of her or his capacity to bring it to fruition, irrespective of the gender, age, nationality or host institution. Significant efforts are made to take career breaks, as well as unconventional research career paths, into account. The evaluations are monitored to guarantee transparency, fairness and impartiality in the treatment of proposals. It is a permanent challenge to keep the evaluation at the highest level.

Surveys show that researchers often perceive public institutions’ recruitment rules and procedures to be neither fair nor transparent in certain countries: When researchers were asked if recruitment at their home institution was merit based, 77% of EU researchers answered yes. However there were again wide differences between countries. For example, over 83% of researchers from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Iceland, Malta, Sweden and the UK answered yes but only 55% in Hungary, 61% in Italy and Portugal and 63% in Spain.

As we must take the reasons why researchers want to enter this demanding career choice seriously, I want to emphasise the need for researchers to have the time and freedom to explore new knowledge. It is very important that policymakers and politicians understand that a significant part of research funding should be organised using the bottom-up approach, the best way to motivate researchers.

There has always been an inherent tension between the demands of policymakers for “innovation”, which they link with short-term improved productivity and economic growth and the deeply-rooted interests of scientists in curiosity-driven research, requiring that one takes a longer perspective.

Faced with overall cuts it seems that policymakers and politicians are too often tempted to cut basic research funding first. It is indeed easier to say that one funds the path to technology X or to the solution of problem Y than to say one funds the more open-ended quest for new knowledge.

The problem is that when a researcher is asked when a specific result in basic research will have an impact, it is not possible to give a uniformly valid answer. But when one looks in retrospect and takes a more global view, it is clear that there are whole sectors of the current economy that were born from absolutely not programmed, or even anticipated, fundamental discoveries. In some cases, the benefits come fast; in others less so but if one does not make the effort to accept taking risks radically new turning points can be missed as well as the new activities that will result from them.

It is a fact that one cannot programme scientific breakthroughs or order them as if choosing from a menu. One simply does not know what one does not know. One cannot foresee the consequences of what is discovered, but one knows that some breakthroughs will deeply change our understanding of the world and give us access to completely new worlds. Think of medical imaging, an engineering domain which would not have made the fantastic progress we all benefit from without the truly multidisciplinary interaction between mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry and of course biology and medicine that nurtured its steady, and truly amazing, steps forward.

What we can say is that economic history reveals the central role played by science and innovation in the growth of industrialised nations. Many important new products, in industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to information technology, have their origins in publicly funded research conducted at universities and research institutions. Many of the commercially successful inventions we now take for granted and which have driven economic growth in the last decades come from research conducted with no commercial purpose. This was clearly stated by Claude SHANNON, one of the founders of “Information theory” that lies at the heart of all the tools we are using daily from cell phones to television and that made the internet possible. Here is what he said: “I am very seldom interested in applications. I am more interested in the elegance of a problem. Is it a good problem, an interesting problem?

So, without curiosity-driven basic research, many critical applied research endeavours to solve “real problems” would not exist, sometimes because the concepts necessary to grasp the problems in the right way and the technical tools to address them are not available.

The innovation process is complex, with many linkages and feedback mechanisms, and it too needs to be understood at a systemic level. It is also increasingly global. Today it is clear that innovation does not follow a neat linear model in which "an innovation" follows directly and rapidly from "a research project" with the benefits captured in the same geographical location as the research takes place. Separating research from innovation by walls does not correspond at all to today’s reality of economic development.

If we look at the regions and the countries which are the most successful innovators, their success is without exception built on a foundation of excellent science. This foundation does not just produce new knowledge but also many other benefits such as highly skilled researchers and graduates, new instruments and methods, access to international networks, new ways of working as well as new technologies and spin-off companies. All things that can be found here at IIT!

This is even more true when a country or region moves closer to the technological frontier. At certain early stages of their development, countries can enjoy “catch-up” growth simply by adopting existing technologies. This becomes increasingly difficult as economies mature.

And this to me is the real value of ERC funding. Long-term funding for ambitious projects frees researchers from having to focus on immediate impact. From thinking of the next publication. From thinking about what to write in the next grant application. It allows researchers to really focus on the core of their research. On top of that, the ERC encourages researchers to take risks. In this way we have the best chance that their work leads to genuinely new knowledge. And in some cases even to radical breakthroughs. We need to see this approach spreading.

My personal experience has shown me that business leaders do have a good understanding of the importance of government support for fundamental research. They do understand the wider benefits of excellent science I mentioned above; in particular high tech companies need highly skilled, trained and versatile people.

That is why I was very pleased to see that a joint letter recently signed by more than 20 recipients of highly regarded international prizes (including the Nobel Prize) and more than 40 CEOs of important companies was sent to all European Heads of State or Government. They took a strong position for an ambitious budget for Horizon Europe, the framework programme of the European Union for the period 2021 to 2027. It is important to see key leaders of industry make the case for EU support for frontier research.

The creation of the ERC more than ten years ago was, I believe, a clear sign that the need to develop Frontier Research was fully recognised for its own sake and a vital component for fostering innovation in the European Union.

In conclusion, let me state without ambiguity that, to be successful and to play the key role they ought to play, all research systems need a regular flow of positions available and stable funding. This is particularly important to help provide a sustainable career path for motivated and talented young researchers. Competitive funding, and in particular its bottom-up part, also has its role to play as it is fundamental to allow researchers the freedom to pursue their most ambitious ideas.

To me Europe faces the danger of satisfying itself with a system where stability is being eroded without increasing room for initiative. Moreover, project funding is too often assigned to very specific, politically chosen ways of working with short-term goals and specific narrow priorities. ERC-type funding is presently remarkably rare, when it should be given a high priority.

My first plea therefore is that we must ensure diversity of the funding mechanisms, programmes and institutional settings at national and European levels using scientific quality as the main driver, keeping in mind that, in the present situation, the European support to research only represents 8% of the total funding available in Europe.

The ERC was set up in 2007 after a long struggle by scientific communities. This proves that Europe can still innovate and create new, dynamic institutions. However, the ERC is just one player in a complex landscape. I am convinced we must and can do much more. We need a Europe that can innovate. We need a Europe that is agile and responsive.

My second plea is for your active and vocal support for an ambitious budget for Horizon Europe, the European part of this edifice, a key part because of the evident added value it brings. This conditions the capacity for Europe to fulfil ambitious goals for its development, and to prepare an appropriate future for its citizens in an increasingly competitive world.

When the EU budget funds quality scientific research, it is in the end the European economy and citizens that benefit. I thank you for your attention.


[1] https://cdn1.euraxess.org/sites/default/files/policy_library/final_report_2.pdf

[2] https://erc.europa.eu/sites/default/files/press_release/files/erc_statement_2005_scc_inaugural_meeting_19_october_en_0.pdf