European Research Area: Translation of shared European objectives to action on national levels"
19 July 2021
ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon's keynote address to the EU Informal Competitiveness Council organised by the Slovenian Presidency 
Cover image of European Research Area: Translation of shared European objectives to action on national levels"

Dear Minister KUSTEC, Dear Commissioner GABRIEL, chère Mariya, Dear Ministers, dear State Secretaries, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many thanks to Minister KUSTEC for offering me the opportunity to address you today.

We were all counting on 2021 to be a year of recovery. It will be but, unfortunately, not as quickly as we would have hoped, and some more hurdles will have to be overcome. But sooner or later we will emerge from the pandemic. The vital task for our generation of leaders is to ensure that our societies emerge stronger and more cohesive, and our economies more resilient.

In all things strength and resilience come from taking a long-term approach. Even in our personal lives we know the importance of establishing good long-term habits and not getting obsessed and carried away by emergencies. The value of a simple long-term approach is as true of our societies and economies as it is to our personal health and well-being. And it is especially true when it comes to investing in research.

But even if we have identified correctly what to do, it is not always easy to actually do it. One can get distracted, or lured into short cuts, pressed to attend to immediate concerns and in the end neglect what will really make a difference.

I have now been involved with the European Research Council for a number of years: already in the 1990s when I was President of a European learned society at the time a few scientists were dreaming of such a programme, then as one of the first ERC panel chairs from 2007 to 2011, further from 2014 to 2019 as the first full time ERC President. Last July I was called back to assume the President position ad interim at a moment when all people who care about Research and Innovation were under shock after the massive cuts to Horizon Europe proposed at the European summit.

In this function, I had the opportunity of meeting many ministers in charge of research. And I am aware that your job is a very difficult one! Not only do you have to deal with many opinionated people like me (mathematicians are among the worst!). But I know that it is not always easy for you to get the attention of your colleagues, the finance ministers, and win negotiations with your Prime Ministers.

One of the reasons is that investing in research is not like anything else. It is easy to see what you are getting if you build a new road or a hospital or increase pensions. But what are you getting if you invest in research?

One tempting way out of this difficulty is to say that you are going to land a human being on Mars, to create a new Google or to cure cancer.

These things are all possible and actually worthy of efforts. But major achievements like these do not come from one-off projects. They are the result of hundreds, or even thousands, of previous efforts that have built up the necessary knowledge and created the competence of countless people. This is a point the ERC Vice-Presidents and myself made to the Horizon Europe’s Mission Board Chairs in a meeting we had with them a few weeks ago. We showed them projects the ERC supports in relation with the themes of their missions.

On top of that, we should be wary of over-promising and under-delivering. In the long-run this can actually also undermine support for research.

In reality what you are getting when you invest in research is first an increased understanding of the world, whether it be the physical, the biological or the human world.

And this is a difficult thing for people to grasp. An increase in understanding? At this point your finance minister might decide that he or she wants to build a few new bridges instead!

But think about this for just a minute. If I build a new bridge, some people will benefit from it as it will shorten their travel time. But if I have a new idea or a deeper understanding, then everyone can benefit. This is for analysing the economic consequences of this insight that Paul Romer received the Nobel Prize in 2018.

What he realised is that physical and human capital are rival goods: if a particular machine, or a trained engineer, is used in one factory, the same machine or engineer cannot be used at the same time in another factory. Ideas, on the other hand, are non-rival goods. One person or firm using an idea does not preclude others from using it too. And this, in a nutshell, is why investment in quality research can reap huge benefits far beyond any other type of investment.

The truly extraordinary achievement of having highly effective vaccines for CoViD-19 available in less than a year teaches us in the most spectacular way the value of gaining knowledge in itself. Over many decades, a few daring scientists worked hard to understand how the human immune system functions and how mRNA could be used to design new types of vaccines. Several of them thought of using this approach to tackle some specific forms of cancer. This is for example the topic of the present ERC grant run by Ugur SAHIN – as you all know, he is a key person behind the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. Of course he, and others following this path, had no idea that there would be a global pandemic in 2020. But the knowledge they had built up over the years, combined with the development of the technologies to get the mRNA where it should be channelled, allowed this fantastic achievement. We must repeat that it is a truly exceptional achievement, which, as you know, is changing the capacity of the world to get the pandemic under control.

We all understand the desire for immediate results. Currently, there are indeed many pressing problems in the world. But let me insist that a deeper ‘understanding’ of some fundamental issues is the key to solving them. This takes time and the solution cannot be promised for tomorrow.

So, the fact that ideas can be used over and over again is amazing in itself, but the good news does not stop there. Because investing in new knowledge has another tremendous advantage: the possibility of combining each new understanding we acquire with all other knowledge we already have. Paul Romer calls this “combinatorial explosion”. And this is what has driven the huge rise in living standards that we have seen over the last two centuries. Put simply, the more knowledge we acquire, the more useful combinations become possible. And this is why solutions can come from unexpected places. New findings in one area can open up new opportunities in different areas. Science advances as a front.

You can see this again with the mRNA vaccines. The understanding that these scientists have developed has not just provided a specific vaccine against Covid-19. It has created a whole new class of vaccines. As we speak, scientists are working with this new idea to potentially treat many other diseases, actually taking up ideas they were developing before their attention was focused for obvious reasons towards dealing with the pandemic.

The point is that the slow accumulation of knowledge can deliver huge results. And you can see that taking the long-term perspective does not mean having to wait a long time for results. The vaccines were ready in record time because of the previous patient work.

But we have still not finished with the good news. Indeed, the process of steadily accumulating knowledge in itself is the best way to train highly skilled knowledge workers of several different categories. And this is absolutely critical for building a sustainable and more resilient society.

When I spoke to you in February at the invitation of Minister HEITOR, I tried to persuade you that nothing could be more important for Europe’s future than promoting attractive research careers across the continent.

Indeed, we need to show young people very explicitly that their involvement in science is cherished and truly essential for Europe’s future. They must see clear prospects for being employed in research if they have the talent and the ambition to orient their lives accordingly.

Why? Because researchers are at the heart of the research process.

So steady, long-term investments in researchers are among the best investments that one can make. And that brings me explicitly to discussing the Pact for Research and Innovation.

I hope you have all now had the chance to at least review the Commission Proposal on this matter issued on Friday.

In line with the Commission Proposal, the ERC Scientific Council fully supports renewed efforts to develop further the European Research Area. Also in view of the relatively limited legal powers and budget for research at EU level it recognises that improving the excellence and efficiency of Europe’s Research and Innovation system must result from an enhanced collaboration between the national and European levels.

The bad news is that, in the two decades since the ERA was launched and the EU adopted its Lisbon strategy, it is not the EU that has forged ahead. Instead, it is China that has managed to turn into reality its goals of advancing its role as one of the global leaders in science, strategic technology areas and industries. In its coming plan, the investment in fundamental research will grow 7% annually. The United States just approved massive investments in Research and Innovation. During the same period, the performance of the EU has been stagnant as the EU R&I investment remains far from the 3% proclaimed target and, in any case, far below what is achieved by its major competitors, a number of them in Asia.

What was done at the European level recently? I already pointed out the cut of the budget of Horizon Europe by more than 15%! This incomprehensible decision has been only partially corrected through remarkable efforts by the European Parliament. Still, the budget for Horizon Europe misses very significantly the € 120 billion mark that was considered by many key players, the Lamy Report, the European Round Table for Industry and of course the European Parliament, as the absolute minimum to keep Europe in the race on the Research and Innovation front.

This comparison should be a massive wake-up call for Europe’s policymakers. Europe cannot afford to content itself with a routine attitude at this critical moment. Decisive actions are needed NOW. Otherwise, in two decades time we will be lamenting that Europe is a scientific follower dependent on others for the key knowledge and technologies its citizens need. We must learn lessons from previous attempts to build the European Research Area. The Pact for R&I may be the last chance we have to finally meet the goals of the original ERA and cement Europe’s position as a leader in Research and Innovation.

One of the key elements of the Lisbon strategy was to raise the overall R&I investment in the EU to 3% of GDP by 2020. In an effort to make major progress towards sustainability, it remains crucial to raise Europe’s level of investment in R&I in order to meet the ambitious political objectives set for addressing major transformative actions: climate change, digitalisation and health (all areas where nobody challenges that research and innovation are key). This requires keeping up with the level of investments made by Europe's global competitors.

But here several stakeholders have already stressed that action to support researchers and research cannot be subordinated only to achieving current EU policies and priorities. Remember that the long-term perspective must prevail. For the Pact to be meaningful it must serve as the basis for long-term action over many years.

The Commission document recommends that “public support should strike the right balance between ‘curiosity-driven’ and ‘mission-oriented’ research”. I cannot agree more but Horizon Europe has seen a the share of the support to ‘curiosity-driven’ research decline by 7% from what it was in Horizon 2020. Is this the right trend? I do not think so, and I am stating this with also the national funding in mind, and this one is your very direct responsibility.

In its present form, the proposed Pact risks neglecting critical foundations of the ERA. For any research funding system it is essential to provide sufficient base funding for universities and research institutions, as well as reasonable opportunities for researchers to receive the funding needed to develop their projects.

Widening excellence and helping to build capacity keep being worthy goals. But they are complementary to and cannot replace strengthening Europe’s existing centres that have reached excellence at the international level. All these are conditions for Europe to remain attractive and competitive on a global scale. The global competition is fierce and not weakening which the recent announcements concerning the funding for Research and Innovation in the United States and China confirm. It concerns quality monitoring as well as budgets.

For the action to be effective, Member States also need to adopt a long-term perspective. Developing a strong science base cannot be the project of a single minister or ministry. There must be a buy-in across governments, and in the long-term by the scientific community. Too often we see a “boom and bust” pattern in research funding and ever changing objectives as administrations change. The countries, which now enjoy good research conditions and success, do so only because of wise and patient investments over many years. It can indeed take many years for the key actors in a system to react to the incentives and feel comfortable with the structures put in place around them, fundamentally a question of trust.

And let me repeat here that researchers are at the heart of the research process. We must ensure that research remains an attractive career for Europe’s brightest talents. A major part of this is to guarantee that there is enough freedom and support for researchers to pursue their own research questions. And as a matter of great urgency we need to plot out a sustainable career path for talented young researchers who are probably the ones most hit by the restrictions introduced during the pandemic.

The ERC – that I have the honour to preside over for another month – now plays a key role in the European Research Area. By offering a pan-European competition for funding and challenging researchers to be daring, the ERC has provided a benchmark for ambitious researchers, research institutions, regions and countries. This contributes to raise the level, dynamism and creativity of the European research eco-system, the objective set for the ERC.

To conclude, we should all remember why we are trying to build a European Research Area together. Too often, the motivation appears to be only to get resources from the EU level to complement scarce ones available at national level, moreover fragmented across 27 different systems. In the European Union, one can find the talent to lead the world in Research and Innovation provided the EU acts in a coordinated way and gathers the adequate resources. Making the most of our talents and resources is ultimately the goal of maintaining a European Research Area. This is why it has to provide the best possible foundation for heading into an increasingly unpredictable future, and with the scientific communities on board.

You are of course aware that we are living in very special times. Only a long-term and ambitious vision can get Europe on the right track for its future. This depends on all of us but especially on you.

I thank you for your attention.

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Madeleine Drielsma
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