Speech | 18-04-2018

ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

"Enhancing Europe. What goals do we pursue in Europe? - International Research Promotion"

Berlin, Germany

(Check against delivery)

It is a great honour for me to address this Summit today.

This is always an important event in the research calendar. Germany accounts for around 30% of all the research expenditure in the 28 EU countries. So, even in a normal year, the decisions you make in this country resonate far beyond Germany.

But, as you know, this year's Summit is likely to have even more resonance. One reason making it exceptional is the fact that, in just two weeks' time, on 2nd May, the European Commission will announce its proposal for the next long-term EU budget for the period 2021 – 2027. Shortly afterwards, on 6th June the Commission will publish its proposal for the next EU Research and Innovation framework programme (FP9). A great occasion to look forward to and decide where to go from, but also a chance to organise ourselves. So where are we?

We are living in a critical moment for the support of research. The latest figures show that, between 2012 and 2016, the EU research intensity, public and private, has fluctuated around 2% of GDP, i.e. more or less stagnated. This remains well below the corresponding ratios recorded in 2015 in Japan (3.29%) and the United States (2.79%), as has been the case for a long period of time, but also in more recent comers like South Korea (4.23%) or Israel (4.27%). At the same time, the R & D intensity in China surpassed that of the EU-28, with Chinese R & D expenditures equivalent to 2.07% of GDP.  So we know where we Europeans stand as far as where the investments, both private and public, go: some European countries like Germany are up to the competition, others still need to make considerable progress to reach a satisfactory level in view of the competition.

The current situation is therefore not ideal, with rising competition from Asia, uncertainties created by Brexit, and some persisting effects of the debt crisis. Nevertheless, there are some reasons for optimism. Important actors, from the public and private sectors, have said that they are looking forward to significant increases in the EU research and innovation budget. Likely difficult negotiations lie ahead. They cannot lead us in the right direction if the strengths and weaknesses of Europe in the international environment are not properly estimated and ways of improving the situation duly identified.

This is one more reason, if we want Europe to be successful, to leave no room for complacency. Indeed, now more than ever, we, in the research community, must show the European added value of acting together. And this must be done on the basis of results.

You will not be surprised if I start with what the European Research Council has achieved in its first 11 years as a key component of the EU's framework programmes. The ERC has reached very high goals showing that Europe, when it acts boldly, can be a successful and mind changing actor:

  1. The ERC is the number one funder in the world if one measures the quality of the research funded on the basis of highly cited scientific publications: as of 2015, ERC grantees have contributed more than 6% of the top-cited articles by EU-based authors whilst the ERC has funded less than 1% of the researchers based in Europe; and this with only 1% of the research budget at European level;
  2. Research funded by the ERC has led to major advances at the frontier of knowledge. Ex-post analyses of completed ERC projects, an initiative of the ERC Scientific Council, shows this year after year. Indeed, more than 70% of ERC projects achieved a breakthrough or a major scientific advance;
  3. Last but certainly not least, ERC-funded research has set a clear inspirational target for frontier research across Europe, pushing applicants to develop their most ambitious and daring ideas, and institutions to support them. The ERC has become a reference for quality evaluation; clearly a key asset for research having a long-term impact.

Still one should never forget that research and innovation form an ecosystem involving top-down and bottom-up approaches, long term basic recurrent support and competitive funding, as well as career paths and opportunities. For sure we cannot say: if one part of the garden is fine, we need only to tend to the other part. A constant attention has to be paid to the system as a whole because of its intricate inner exchanges that make it effective and cohesive. And the two components, research and innovation, have to nurture each other, through radically new paradigms in one direction, through challenging questions leading to new enquiries in the other.

Now, some say that Europe has a low capacity to develop radical innovations as the result of some strange paradox. Actually, if one looks closely, Europe tends to be more competitive in traditional areas of slow growth, and not so competitive in areas linked to hotter technological topics. This is confirmed by a recent analysis considering 14 fast evolving technological topics from among a large number of research fields by their high citation rates and current technological importance: the US far outperformed the EU in the former, especially if the UK was not included[1].

Could this mean that the top-down strategic planning in place in so many countries in Europe is not nurtured in the right way by the true paradigm change developed by researchers and entrepreneurs at their own initiative? In my opinion, some thought should be put in to the fact that too many countries have put too much weight on a top-down approach and not placed enough trust in the scientific community.

This ecosystem is indeed multi-layered and depends critically on actions taken also at the national level as well as in the private sector. And we should not think of it as only a relationship between the national and the EU level. We also need to consider the whole range of cross border links that exist in our globalised world. Science is highly integrated at the global level. But even when we consider "close to market" innovations, then the links are also clear. It is very rare that an entirely new technology is brought to market in one step.

More normally, an innovation consists of a novel combination of technologies, some based on radically new scientific paradigms, others on a breakthrough (e.g. in material sciences) allowing a new wave of incremental innovations to existing technologies and their new combinations. Think of smartphones or autonomous vehicles. And nearly always these different technologies will have been developed at different times in many different locations across the world. So a successful national or EU-wide innovation system will be one that is best integrated into the global research and innovation system.

The level of support to research and innovation given at EU level is presently only about 10% of the total public spending in Europe. Hence the duty of all of us who have responsibilities at the European and national levels to find optimal combinations of strategies, each taking advantage of the available respective means of actions: the EU provides a wonderful platform only if its programmes are deemed fit for these purposes, and the scientific community must make its voice heard to help achieve that.

The ERC represents a clear example of added value at the European level. By running pan-European calls for proposals it challenges researchers and institutions across Europe to give their best, to better organise themselves and to push the frontiers. Prior to the creation of the ERC, Europe was lacking a "comprehensive, strict ex-ante competitive selection process"[2] at continental level, capable of challenging the research system in its diversity and complexity.

But it does more: the ERC Scientific Council has already taken a very successful first step in establishing Proof-of-Concept grants for ERC grantees who, along the way of developing their research see the possibility of getting closer to market or of addressing societal challenges. Almost 800 grants have already been provided and they led to the creation of more than 100 start-ups. This is of course not the core of the mission of the ERC but shows that the connectivity of research to innovation, and in particular to disruptive innovation, is a reality even in the minds of researchers.

This brings me to my second key point. Since I took on my current function, I have been very struck with the way policy makers of all nationalities often talk about research. Their focus is, in my opinion, too much on structures and systems, on strategic programming, on critical mass and short-term priorities. This leads them to miss that the most essential contribution comes from the researchers and the entrepreneurs themselves, who make things work in their diversity.

Therefore, for me, a critical factor to enhance the performance of the European research system is that enough room be given to initiatives coming from a variety of highly motivated people, attracting some of them and retaining others in Europe, whether researchers or entrepreneurs. And, first and foremost, the key is to convince the most talented young people to consider research as a possible career, in academia as well as in industry. Europe must be, as Commissioner Moedas and the ERC champion, “Open to the World”. This is what the top line of the world map in my office in Brussels says!

As far as the ERC is concerned, the facts are as follows: in 2017, more than 500 applications for Starting and Consolidator Grants were submitted by nationals of non-European Research Area countries. They represent 9% of the total and almost 150 applications for Advanced Grants representing 7% of the total. In the whole history of the ERC, 645 grants out of 8160 have been awarded to non-ERA nationals representing 8%. So far, the ERC has funded grantees of 74 different nationalities; on top of that over 1,000 panel members coming from 22 countries outside Europe have taken part in the ERC evaluations, and the remote referees come from more than 80 countries! Europe acts at world level and benefits from that.

Yet, Europe has to care about the right basic conditions for researchers, as without them the long-term quality of research is affected. It is also a key condition for researchers based in Europe to feel comfortable about developing their research where they are. Anybody entering a demanding working environment, such as ours, wants to be assured that there is a chance of a career, of advancement, of some reward. When these basic conditions are not met, we should not be surprised to see the best researchers simply move to carry out their research elsewhere, or leave research altogether.

This is a challenge for all of us, and for sure the national or regional structures have a very big role to play in making the right offers available. Finding the optimal way of helping countries still struggling to achieve that is vital; almost surely it has to be a combination of measures and commitments coming from all levels, global, bilateral, multi-lateral, and local.

This starts with creating good conditions to develop skills. For this too, I want to highlight what the ERC has done so far: more than 50 000 researchers have been financed by the ERC as team members, many of them post-doctoral or doctoral fellows, with a fantastic diversity of origins. The fact that almost 1/3 of the ERC team members are non-European proves that, when Europe offers a high level competitive environment, it can be fantastically attractive to the most promising young researchers, Europeans and non-Europeans. It is up to us all, at EU, national and regional levels, to convince them that Europe can be the best place for them to develop further.

For that it is indispensable to plot out a sustainable career path for talented young researchers, from wherever they come. In some European countries, these paths are in place, not yet in some others. We must consider employment and working conditions, based on open, transparent and merit-based recruitment, without forgetting the need for an improved position for female scientists.

So let me conclude. We are currently living in a period of considerable political uncertainty. Times of uncertainty make some decision makers timid. But such times can also open the way to bold decisions.

I very much hope that, as hinted in the announcement of this conference, you will make strong and courageous decisions. And not only for Germany but also with your European partners in all their diversity. For the sake of all our future generations which, I am sure, will contribute to an ambitious Europe. This is the only setting offering the variety of tools given the intense international competition Europeans face.

I thank you for your attention.


1 Navarro and Brito 2018. The FETT topics were: graphene, solar cells, nanotechnology, electronics, Li+ or Na+ batteries, metal-organic frameworks, superconductors, transistors, semiconductors, wireless communications, composite materials, quantum dots, fuel cells, and energy transfer.

2 P. 30 of Bonaccorsi, A. (2015), Ex-post Evaluation of the Seventh Framework Programme – Support paper to the High Level Expert Group, IDEAS Specific Programme Analytical Evaluation