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Speech | 13-06-2019

ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

Roles of National and European Funding in Frontier Research, Academy of Finland

Helsinki, Finland

 

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many thanks to Professor Heikki Mannila and the organisers of today’s event.

This seminar – on the eve of the beginning of the Finnish EU presidency – deals with the very important question of the roles of national and European funding in frontier research.

On this matter the first thing we need to do is to remind ourselves of the financial reality, namely of the amount of funding coming from the national and the European levels. The sheer size of the EU framework programmes, currently around €11 billion per year, can sometimes mislead us as to its relative weight. In fact, currently, the EU economy, public and private, invests around €300 billion per year in R&D. So overall the framework programme represents only around 3% of the overall expenditure.

It is therefore clear then that EU funding cannot be a substitute for national funding, and therefore EU funding must have a specific purpose: it must provide “EU added value”, a term which represents a very important objective in many other policies the European Commission is in charge of. This leaves us with the fact that, depending on the support given nationally by the public and the private sectors, the situation in different EU countries can vary a lot. Finland has been and, from what the new Minister told me yesterday, will be even more in the future on the good side for that matter.

Actually, a basis for this added value has been identified for many years: the initial idea was that the EU could address the fragmentation and lack of critical mass in Europe by setting up large-scale collaborative projects in priority areas. This was at the heart of an effort which started in the 1980s.

However, the launch of the European Research Area (ERA) and the Lisbon Strategy in 2000 led to a period of reflection among the European scientific and policy-making communities on how to revise this strategy to best support research and innovation at EU level.

The emerging debate emphasised the central importance of high quality basic research to the relative performance of the innovation systems of the US and Europe. The idea of a mechanism for funding basic research carried out by individual researchers at EU level therefore gradually gained traction.

The idea of a programme supporting individual researchers started to be discussed in the scientific community in the late 1990s. I could witness it as President of the European Mathematical Society. And scientists, mainly, I must recognise, thanks to the efforts of the biologists’ community, managed to organise themselves sufficiently to get the process that led to the creation of the European Research Council (ERC). Of course of critical importance was the support received from some political figures and some European Commission officials.

After a rather convoluted process, the ERC was created in 2007, as a result of an elaborate political compromise between the European Commission and EU countries - guaranteeing that the original plan for a programme led by scientists would be implemented thanks to the appropriate autonomy for the ERC. Some of its key features reflect the clear wish expressed by the scientific community: a simple science driven funding mechanism functioning in the least bureaucratic way, with scientific quality as the only criterion for selection of projects. It was designed to raise the attractiveness of the European research system, give younger researchers room to develop their most ambitious projects and help Europe produce the very best cutting-edge science in new and rapidly emerging fields.

By channelling resources to researchers selected for the first time through a truly pan-European competition on the basis of their best ideas, the ERC was able, and must remain able, to achieve a very high scientific impact. A condition for this to happen was, of course, that the selection process be exemplary and involve the most qualified researchers coming from anywhere in the world. This has been achieved. In the ERC selection process, we are at the heart of the search for quality. This confers status and visibility to the best research leaders working in Europe and helps attract and retain outstanding researchers here. This is something highly non-trivial, because of the enhanced competition at world level due to the major investments made in particular by several Asian countries, among which China of course.

Actually this has further repercussion, as, strictly at the ERC grantees initiative, the impact goes much beyond the mere scientific impact. The Proof-of-Concept programme, created by the ERC Scientific Council, accompanies researchers in this endeavour.

In Europe a large proportion of the funding available coming from the public sector is institutional funding. What that means is that funding for individual researchers to carry out ambitious projects of their own choice is rather limited. And here we can start to understand better the weight of the part of the EU framework programmes that is bottom-up. Because by some estimates they represent around 20% of the project funding available in Europe. From this you can see that this funding is a highly valuable resource which we cannot afford to get diverted.

The ERC has already demonstrated a wide range of direct and indirect impacts across a number of important dimensions.

Let me list further impacts of the ERC on the European research system I personally consider key:

  • To establish a European benchmark, due to the fact that scientific quality is the only criteria for the selection of proposals;
  • To push researchers, in particular younger ones, to try and formulate what they really dream of working on; for many of them this is the first time they perform such an exercise, inspiring them to further develop their careers;
  • To help build up the next generation of researchers; at the ERC Scientific Council’s initiative, two thirds of its resources are dedicated to researchers in the early part of their career with a considerable impact on the next generation of researchers;
  • To take the ERC’s aim for high risk/high gain research seriously;
  • To promote the concept of Frontier Research in order to refuse to distinguish between pure and applied research; ERC grantees have given many examples of the production of totally unexpected applications, with very concrete and sometimes spectacular effects in society, starting from a fundamental insight;
  • To promote an active policy of gender balance showing that, with a careful and sustained attention to the processes, both the share of women applying and their success rates can be readily improved;

The ERC has convincingly shown that more space must be reserved to a bottom-up approach, so much so that Commissioner Carlos Moedas borrowed the ERC model to build the European Innovation Council in his endeavour to boost innovation in Europe. The success of the ERC has also convinced a number of countries to reshape their funding structure following some of its principles.

The results of the ERC calls also provide benchmarks for individual countries and research institutions to catalyse changes in national science research funding policies as well as institutional practices to make Europe a more attractive research environment.

I hope that, in the future, the exploitation of the results coming from ERC-funded projects will nurture the European policy for research and innovation much more. This can be readily obtained by using the remarkable scientific competence and high level of knowledge gained by the ERC Scientific Officers due to their careful follow up of the scientific achievements of ERC projects.

On this basis it is of course of critical importance to make sure that all conditions are gathered for this impact to continue. And for this, one has to identify them.

A critical reason for the success of the ERC is undoubtedly its governance by an independent Scientific Council in charge of the overall scientific strategy and with full authority over decisions on the format of the research to be funded, and its evaluation, as well as on monitoring the implementation of the programme. This guarantees its credibility in the scientific community as well as the effectiveness of the ERC, the focus of its operations on serving the scientific community in the least bureaucratic way, and the integrity of the peer-review process.

In 2015, the ex-post evaluation of the EU’s seventh Framework Programme put in place by the European Commission stated the following about the ERC (which was a part of the IDEAS programme): "The IDEAS programme has been, overall, highly successful. It has produced remarkable scientific results in a relatively short time-frame. It has used the resources available effectively and efficiently…The ERC has been the first step in changing this state of affairs. The initial results are remarkably positive and reinforce the rationale from which it has been created."

So in conclusion, I think one can reliably claim that the ERC has had a major impact on the European funding landscape. And one of these impacts has been to change the narrative of European research policy and therefore influenced the way national funding was provided.

It is extremely striking how the debate over supporting research and innovation has gone around in circles over the decades. Sometimes leaning more towards research, sometimes more towards innovation. My belief is that the successful example of the ERC has now proven that it is unjustified to decouple research and innovation and focus on only one aspect. And in this way the ERC has provided a convincing definition of “EU added value” because it is a structure that delivered this, even beyond what was hoped for.

I will leave you with the words of the OECD’s latest innovation strategy I could have written myself almost verbatim. “Public research plays a key role in innovation systems by providing new knowledge and pushing the knowledge frontier. Universities and public research institutions often undertake longer-term, higher-risk research and complement the activities of the private sector.”[1] The strategy calls on governments to, “Think long-term: Many of the key technologies driving growth today, including the Internet, mobile telephony and genomics, would not have been possible without public funding of long-term research… Innovation policies must look to the long term to answer major challenges like climate change and ageing.” The only words I would add are: “Nothing of importance can be done on these matters without the direct and genuine involvement of the scientific communities.”

I thank you for your attention.

1. The OECD Innovation Strategy, 2015 revision