Flexibility and respect for diversity, key for developing successful research environments
24 November 2020
ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Erasmus University Rotterdam strategic session
Cover image of Flexibility and respect for diversity, key for developing successful research environments

Many thanks for your invitation to contribute to the debate today. It is a great honour for me.

I understand that you are working on your priorities to develop the university further. A key reflection of course. Part of it must be connected to the University’s funding strategy, especially at a time when Horizon Europe, the new European framework programme, is launched.

The good news is that you do not have to change anything to be ready for the calls of the European Research Council since the request for continuity put forward by the ERC Scientific Council has been fully respected! As you know, the ERC operates on a completely 'bottom-up' basis without predetermined priorities within frontier research.

In that respect the ERC is unique in the European Commission portfolio. The basic reason is its governance: as you know, it is in the hands of its independent Scientific Council that has full responsibility on the allocation of its annual budget and the organisation of the scientific evaluation. The philosophy of the ERC rests on the idea that researchers are the ones who know best what they should research and how they should do it. Those of you who are scientists are very comfortable with this approach. And academic institutions must cherish such an approach.

Of course, the idea to fund research this way is not a new one. The predecessor of today’s Max Planck Society in Germany was set up in 1911 according to the Harnack Principle. Alfred VON HARNACK, the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, advocated the right of researchers to work independently of government or private requirements and protected from bureaucracy.

Around the same time, the UK’s Research Councils were set up as autonomous bodies to be free from all kinds of pressures that might discourage research in certain areas.

In 1939, Abraham FLEXNER wrote the famous manifesto entitled “The usefulness of useless knowledge”. It was the blueprint for establishing the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, later home to Albert EINSTEIN,  Kurt GÖDEL, John VON NEUMANN, Freeman DYSON among others, and served as model to other institutions in the world. The manifesto has been republished recently with a preface of the present IAS director, the Dutch physicist Robbert DIJKGRAAF.

And after the Second World War, Vannevar BUSH made similar arguments in “Science, The Endless Frontier”, his 1945 report to the United States President calling for an expansion of government support for science, and the creation of the American National Science Foundation.

So this approach of trusting scientists has a long and successful history.

In the 1990s and early 2000s many members of the European scientific community – I was one of them – campaigned long and hard for a programme within the European Commission portfolio relying on these tried and trusted principles. This is how the ERC could finally come to life.

But we cannot hide that this approach can be confusing for policymakers and administrators. Political leaders are under pressure to deliver results in the short term, all the more so when they are confronted with a major crisis as they are these days. To them the right answer seems to be to say: “I will be funding technology X to solve problem Y” rather than saying “let us keep a high priority to funding that develops new knowledge”. And institutions are under pressure to be ready to respond to these demands. Nevertheless they must resist and make the case for academic freedom.

Still, we must understand this request for immediate results. Currently, there are indeed many pressing problems in the world. Why are not we instructing, or at least encouraging, applicants to solve them? Why are we asking them instead to follow their curiosity? Simply because ‘understanding’ is the key. Without it there is no real solution to problems, and to do that sometimes the solutions comes from a totally unexpected path. Hence my plea for flexibility at institution level to leave room to develop new knowledge.

For almost 40 years now, the European Union’s research programmes have supported collaborative research projects in applied or mission-oriented areas. But in January 2000 European Commissioner Philippe BUSQUIN announced the European Research Area, focused on people’s mobility, and in March 2000, the Lisbon Strategy defended in particular by Minister Jose-Mariano GAGO was adopted. This started a period of reflection among the European scientific and policymaking communities on how best to support research and innovation at the EU level.

The emerging policy debate emphasised the central importance of basic research to the relative performance of the innovation systems of the US and Europe. At the same time, the scientific community also started to push for a simpler, less prescriptive, more science-driven alternative to the traditional format of the framework programmes.

That is why the ERC welcomes applications from and supports scientists from anywhere in the world, of any age and from any field of research – including of course the social sciences and humanities. And projects are evaluated only on the basis of their scientific quality. The ERC provides substantial, long-term funding, and to me this is the real value of ERC funding. Secure funding frees researchers from having to be concerned with immediate impact. From thinking of the next publication. From worrying about what to write in the next grant application. It allows researchers to really focus on the core of their research taking a long view. We believe it is the best way through which their work will lead to genuinely new knowledge. And, as said before, we have a pressing need for this new knowledge.

The only prerequisites made on ERC funded researchers is that they must be based in Europe for at least 50% of their time and willing to be adventurous and to take risks in their research. It is clear that Dutch universities know how to make researchers comfortable with these rules. And they manage to do that by creating research environments that are conducive to do excellent research. I am sure you have no intention to change what makes the Netherlands by far the most successful EU country in terms of ERC grants with 54 ERC grants for million inhabitants, more than 3 times more than Germany or France!

If we look at regions and countries which are the most successful innovators, their success is without exception built on a foundation of excellent science. Beyond new knowledge, this foundation produces 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 this resonates with what institutions need to work on.

In 2016, a study funded by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation policy was published. It looked at the relationship between research policy and research performance over the period 1980 – 2013. One clear finding was the following: “Competitiveness in research tends to be a package: some nations perform well at both a specific and a more general level, while others perform less well across the board. With very few exceptions, all leading scientific nations, both smaller ones such as Switzerland, Denmark and the Netherlands, and larger ones such as the U.S. and UK are thus world-leading not only overall, but also in many individual scientific disciplines. This indicates that excellence in individual disciplines or fields of research is hard to attain without a system that supports excellence at a more general level.” I am sure your University is comfortable with such an approach.

So in the real world, we do not find examples of strongly performing countries that are specialised in some sub-set of priority areas. This provides an excellent motivation for diversity!

If Europe wants to lead, then its researchers need to be the first to discover and develop the latest knowledge. One cannot lead by only developing ideas first discovered elsewhere. And our brightest minds will not be content to limit themselves to be only imitators, not curiosity-driven creators. European universities should make sure that they do encourage such ambitions.

So you heard me claiming that ensuring some freedom of action for scientists is critical. But ensuring scientific freedom is not enough by itself. We scientists cannot ask for scientific freedom from the funders and then tie our own hands behind our backs. And, if we are honest, we must recognise that the academic community tends to be conservative. One of your duties is to cultivate diversity to combat this tendency.

Indeed, as a scientist, I believe that diversity, risk taking and interdisciplinarity are crucial for the vitality of science. The late Freeman Dyson, Physics professor at the IAS in Princeton, wrote a text which is very dear to me, entitled “In Praise of Diversity”. This is the first section of his book “Infinite in all Directions” published in 1988. In this text, he writes: “Diversity is the great gift which life has brought to our planet… The preservation and fostering of diversity is the great goal which I would like to see embodied in our ethical principles and in our political actions”. You see that he formulated his vision much before such themes became dominant in the political arena and high up in the agenda.

In a similar fashion, to cultivate diversity appropriately, we must ensure that no one model of how to do science becomes seen as THE way to do science. Each century has its paradigmatic science. And for the 21st Century it is likely to be the life sciences. It is undoubtedly true that ERC has been developed along the model of these disciplines in which scientists tend to work in small teams closely supervised by the team leader. One has to make sure that other ways of practicing research can be properly taken into consideration. Indeed, in other fields, the critical number of people required to do significant work varies enormously from a single person to huge teams. This was one of the reasons why the ERC Scientific Council introduced Synergy grants. Another one is of course creating a space where interdisciplinarity is obviously welcome.

One must always keep in mind that the outcomes of research are treated very differently in different fields and disciplines. The policy regarding co-authorship of scientific publications for example varies enormously. In some fields there may be tens of co-authors for each paper. Also the longevity of articles and the average age of citations differ considerably from one area of research to the next. Most findings in the life sciences become outdated very rapidly, whereas mathematicians tend to believe that they are working for eternity. Respecting this diversity is a must! For sure a killer for a simplistic use of bibliometrics.

As a consequence, there is a need for a great variety of programmes to support research.

The quality of the selection mechanisms in the system is one of the most decisive factors, and institutions must be at ease with this iron rule. The whole evaluation process is founded on the capabilities, the calibre and the independence of the evaluators and reviewers. They have to be broad-minded and not to adhere to rigid schools of thought. The criteria and guidelines matter for the evaluation processes that lie at the heart of hiring and promotion decisions, decisive moments in the life of academic institutions. Because one can be conservative not just in terms of science but in what is the right way to do science and the right type of scientific career. This too must be fought against.

That is why the ERC's peer review evaluation process has been carefully designed to evaluate projects solely on their scientific quality, while verifying whether the proponent has shown evidence of his or her capacity to bring it to fruition, irrespective of the gender, age, nationality or host institution. This is also why significant efforts are made to consider career breaks, as well as unconventional research career paths. The evaluations are monitored to guarantee transparency, fairness and impartiality in the treatment of proposals.

To take a very important example of issues to consider, the Scientific Council of the ERC attaches great importance to the issue of gender balance and, since 2007, has in place a Gender Equality Plan which was updated for Horizon 2020. A new version is being prepared.

The shares of applications by women to the ERC’s calls vary by calls and by disciplines but have regularly progressed over the years. It is now around 40% for the Starting and Consolidator Grant calls and above 20% for the Advanced Grant calls. This is in proportion to the shares of women at different career stages in Europe, as shown in the annual EU study called She Figures.

Moreover, the various actions and measures in the ERC equality plan have succeeded in raising the overall success rate of women to ERC’s calls from 8% in the Framework Programme 7 (compared to 11% for men) to 13% in Horizon 2020 (the same as the success rate for men!). A key progress.

It is time for me to come to my conclusion, I ask you to imagine a situation where Europe's policymakers and administrators decide on five, or ten, or fifteen priority areas. And that all of Europe's scientists agree, or are required, to work on these priority areas.

Would this be efficient? Would we make more progress this way? I do not believe so. Likely, this would be disastrous for the future of science in Europe. Simply science does not work like this.

My plea to you, therefore, is: all of us must ensure diversity of the funding mechanisms, programmes and institutional settings at national and European levels using scientific quality as the main driver. Such a need applies also to the University level where diversity must be cultivated.

I of course cannot conclude this keynote address without paying due credit to the extraordinary vision of Desiderius ERASMUS, your inspirer. Here is quote from him that I take to heart: “A constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies, so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery, for no activity can be continued for long if it does not to some extent afford pleasure to the participant.” In my office in Brussels, I had prominently a calligraphy from the late Chinese mathematician CHERN Shiing-Shen that says “Math is fun”. Remember that I am a mathematician. A hero of mine, Denis DIDEROT, one of the fathers of L’Encyclopédie, spoke of ‘le plaisir de penser’. Please always keep this in mind: the pursuit of science must be fun!

I thank you for your attention.



Madeleine Drielsma
Press and Communication advisor
T: +32 2 298 76 31