Promoting attractive research careers across Europe
03 February 2021
ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon's  address to the EU Informal Competitiveness Council organised by the Portuguese Presidency
Cover image of Promoting attractive research careers across Europe

Dear Minister Heitor, Dear Manuel, Dear Commissioner Gabriel, chère Mariya,

Dear Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the possibility to address you today on the topic of careers in research. And to me, nothing could be more important for Europe’s future than promoting attractive research careers across the continent. Offering career perspectives is indeed needed to convince the brightest and most daring minds to take up the challenge. I do not have to remind people like you, who are responsible for the development of research in your country, that, at the heart of our “research systems”, are the individual scientists and researchers who make it happen.

The good news for policy-makers is that researchers are highly motivated and research jobs tend to be attractive by their nature. Most people go into research for the intellectual challenge, to satisfy their sense of curiosity about the world. Surveys, such as the Commission’s own MORE3 study, show that researchers are even willing to trade material working conditions against the right conditions for carrying out their research. But they need to see some future prospects: that they have a reasonable chance to find an opportunity, that is a decent job, to develop their potential.

One of the most important features that researchers value is scientific autonomy. Hence depriving researchers of their freedom is a sure way of making research careers unattractive.

And that is why, from the start, the European Research Council has empowered young researchers, providing grants that give them true opportunities to establish themselves as independent actors with adequate means to develop their own projects, and this for 5 years. This is possible because the ERC operates on a completely 'bottom-up' basis without predetermined priorities within frontier research and has kept this approach untouched since its inception. The foundation of this philosophy is 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.

Of course, the idea that a significant part of research has to be funded this way is not a new one. It is the philosophy behind the Max Planck Society in Germany, the UK’s Research Councils, the US National Science Foundation and my alma mater the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. So the approach of trusting and empowering scientists has a long and successful history. In fact many members of the European scientific community – I was one of them – campaigned long and hard in the 1990s for a programme within the European Commission portfolio going back to these tried and trusted principles. Thanks to the vision of great policy-makers such as the late Portuguese Minister Mariano Gago, this campaign resulted more than 10 years later in the creation of the ERC. I pay tribute to Mariano for this also because this important achievement does not bear the name of Lisbon, unlike several other key components of the European research strategy.

But this free bottom up approach can be confusing for policy-makers and administrators. Political leaders are under pressure to deliver results in the short term, all the more so when confronted with a major crisis. It is very tempting to say: “I will be funding technology X to solve problem Y”, rather than saying “let us keep a high priority to funding schemes that develop new knowledge”.

So this desire for immediate results can be understood. Currently, there are indeed many pressing problems in the world. Why are we not just instructing, or at least encouraging, researchers to focus on solving them? Why would it be relevant to ask them to follow their curiosity instead?

The answer is that ‘understanding’ is the key. Without having at hand the relevant concepts there is no real solution to problems. And sometimes solutions come from a totally unexpected path.

We have a spectacular example at work presently with the development of the mRNA vaccines, at the heart of the products developed by BioNTech and Curevac. This type of vaccines is not a 'miracle'. It is the result of decades of fundamental research. Based on an in-depth understanding of the way cells function and develop immunity, the concept was introduced some 20 years ago. It required developing new technologies, and therefore  receiving support for different purposes and from different sources, local, national and European. It was tried in a number of situations but actually never put to wide-spread action until it was tried on the newly appeared coronavirus. Then, in a record time, it worked thanks to the knowledge accumulated in dealing with a number of pathologies and with the appropriate financial decisions needed to pass the hurdles going from a small scale lab experiment to an industrial production of billions of doses. It has become one of the big hopes we have to get us out of the major crisis the world is facing. An incredible combination of science and innovation, based on daring entrepreneurship and patient capital.

The truth is that, beyond this example, science advances as a front. Advances in one area, sometimes very theoretical ones, open up opportunities in other areas, sometimes unexpected ones. Even our most ubiquitous devices these days are “systems of systems”, think of your telephone and its use of GPS or internet. They incorporate knowledge from many different fields, hard won over many years. Innovation is about combining things in new ways. New knowledge gives us more building blocks to combine.

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 from 1980 until2013. One clear finding was that: “Competitiveness in research tends to be a package… 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… 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.” So in the real world, we do not find examples of strongly performing countries that are specialised in some sub-set of priority areas.

Indeed, the group of leading scientific nations was “very diverse in terms of how the national science systems are organised and funded... there is not one optimal national science policy model but rather a number of quite different models, which all have shown high performance for several decades.”

Hence it makes sense to acknowledge that each country faces a different set of conditions, a different history that has shaped its institutional environment. In a given country, policy-makers need to create the conditions in which researchers working there can flourish.

But there is one striking feature that all the top performing countries do share. And that is a long-term commitment to supporting research, and some stability in the funding and governance conditions. This is required to make young researchers acquire the confidence that they can navigate the system with some hope that their contribution is truly welcome and the selection will be based on scientific quality, not opportunistic considerations.

So in conclusion, the bad news is that there are no quick fixes. I strongly fear that a constant stream of new initiatives and policy priorities, as well as the boom and bust cycles we see in research funding, can actually distract the key future players, in particular women, from engaging themselves in this demanding career path. To win their conviction, what is really important is to continue developing steady and patient efforts and to adopt a long-term view. The countries, which now enjoy success in research, do so only because of wise and sustained investments over many years. Many European countries have this capacity, provided their governments make the right courageous decisions and stick to them.

And one should not forget that it is crucial to offer scientists credible employment prospects and the necessary freedom of action. In research, the key competition is about people. If Europe wants to lead in a world of ever-growing competition with other continents, then it must create conditions that convince the best minds it is the place where they will be able to mature their vision and also to take advantage of further opportunities for those with an entrepreneurial spirit.

One such short-term condition is to make the funding of Horizon Europe available quickly without creating a gap with Horizon 2020. For the ERC for example, this means being able to inform the scientific community as soon as possible about the pending grant competitions. The ERC Starting and Consolidator Grants calls must open promptly and close at the end of March and mid-April respectively to avoid a major negative impact on the evaluation process and delayed granting. The EU Council and the European Parliament must unite in achieving this very short-term goal. The ERC Executive Agency is ready to implement.

When this is done, it will be time to embark  on achieving the more long-term and demanding goals to which I called your attention. The scientific community counts on you for that.

I thank you for your attention.


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