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Speech | 02-02-2018

ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon's address to EU Research Ministers
Sofia, Bulgaria

(Check against delivery)

Honourable Minister Valchev, dear Commissioner Moedas, dear Carlos,

Honourable Ministers, State Secretaries,

Dear Director General Smits, dear Robert-Jan,

Dear Directors,

Dear Bindi Karia,

Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be given the possibility to address the EU's research ministers today, alongside Commissioner Moedas and Ms Bindi Karia from the EIC High Level Group.

As you know, we are living in a critical moment for the support of research. At the European level, important decisions will soon be made about its place in the next EU budget. To be successful, there is no room for complacency. Now more than ever, we, in the research community, need to make the strongest possible case for increased support based on facts. We need to explain in the clearest terms the value and impact that comes from funding research and innovation, in particular at the European level, its European added value, and this should be done on the basis of results.

Take the European Research Council (ERC), in place since ten years within the EU seventh framework programme (FP7) and in Horizon 2020. It has reached very high goals: Firstly, research funded by the ERC has led to major advances at the frontier of knowledge, as the ex-post analysis conducted on completed projects shows year after year. Indeed, more than 70% of ERC projects achieved a breakthrough or a major scientific advance. Secondly, research funded by the ERC has set a clear and inspirational target for frontier science across Europe pushing applicants to develop their most ambitious and daring ideas, and not just ask for funding to continue routine work. It contributed significantly to the fact that now Europe is ahead of the US in terms of share of the 1% most cited scientific articles. When it acts together with the proper tools, Europe can set an example for the world.

After ten years the ERC is fulfilling its mission, even beyond the high expectations of the scientific community which inspired its creation. It shows that researchers should be trusted more often rather than told what they should do. The ERC will continue to do so, if what made it a European success is kept in the next framework programme and further developed.

Take the impact on developing skills: in a few months about 8 000 ERC grantees will have been funded since 2007 to pursue ambitious projects undertaken at the sole initiative of these researchers in terms of objectives, strategies followed and practical implementation, in all fields of knowledge, including social sciences and humanities. Almost 6 000 of them are less than 40 years of age, showing the decisive impact that the ERC has on empowering the next generation of researchers. Maybe even more important as far as the contribution to the development of skills in Europe goes: more than 50 000 researchers have been financed by the ERC as team members, many of them post-doctoral or doctoral fellows. It proves that, when Europe offers a high-level competitive environment, it can be fantastically attractive to the most promising young researchers, European and non-European, as almost one third of ERC team members are non-European.

This has led a number of ERC-funded researchers to make headlines around the world. In the short time I have here today I will quote only one example: the recent discovery of a previously unidentified back door in Intel processors threatening gravely their security, and possibly their integrity. This hardware bug made front headlines worldwide. This shows another aspect in a spectacular way: if frontier research is decisive in laying the foundations for the industries of the future and therefore should be funded as a long-term investment, we should not fall into the trap of thinking it only has value in the long-term.

Many more examples can be provided of these short-circuits between scientific breakthroughs and potentially very significant practical developments that impact people’s daily lives. Here I can quote Nobel Prize winner and two times ERC grantees Ben Feringa: the smartphone is an example of a world-changing technology based on advances in physics and chemistry that came half a century before the mobile gadget came into existence.... Creativity and imagination is sustainable, beyond any doubt". As mathematician, I feel that algorithms and the use of data should not be forgotten in this world-changing adventure, as well as the new economic models used.

It is with this in mind that, in 2011, the ERC Scientific Council - which bears the responsibility of setting the ERC scientific strategy and evaluation, and to monitor its implementation by the ERC Executive Agency - created the ERC Proof of Concept Grants. This top-up funding was introduced to explore the commercial and social potential of ideas arising from ERC projects appearing along the way, most of the time totally unanticipated at the outset. This is the value of serendipity. Already over 100 spin-off companies have come out of ERC projects. During FP7, 29% of the patents came from ERC projects, although the ERC programme did not even receive 17% of the FP7 budget. This shows that the ivory tower scientists are supposed to live in has several extra doors. A very good sign of this is the very significant number of ERC-funded projects dealing with new approaches to the production of energy, the study of migration, various impacts of climate change, new transportation systems, cancer treatment and to many other areas identified as societal challenges or domains of high industrial relevance.

In November 2015, the European Business Angels Network (EBAN) awarded its first-ever prize for “Innovation in Science Venture Finance” to the ERC. This was an external recognition by investors of the value of the ERC efforts to bring frontier research to the market. This is certainly something the creators of the ERC would not have counted on. This is the basic motivation for the ERC to build appropriate bridges with the EIC - when it will be operational – to progress further in impacting society in the short term .

For this to continue in the EU's next Framework programme (FP9), the autonomy of the ERC and the responsibility given to its Scientific Council, which proved to be so critical, have to be preserved. The same applies to its simple procedures and its capacity to innovate that it used for example to set up its evaluation process. Indeed, the ERC's backbone is a robust evaluation process selecting the best ideas put forward by daring scientists strictly on scientific quality. More agility to explore other frontiers is needed. The consolidation of the ERC also requires an increased budget to be able to fund more top scientific projects in Europe and reach a 15% success rate for candidates. This will guarantee a more stable flow of applications and more room for interdisciplinary projects, which the relaunch of the ERC Synergy Grants enable. This was a key step in the related strategy put in place by the Scientific Council.

We count on you to make all this possible. This requires that the EU budget for research and innovation grows significantly in FP9, as categorically advocated for in the reports by Mario Monti and Pascal Lamy. In view of the strong competition coming from Asia, and in particular from China, Europe has no other choice than to invest in science, research and innovation. It will make Europe all the more strong. 

I thank you for your attention.