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Speech | 22-09-2020

ERC President Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon
Hearing at the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgets
Brussels, Belgium

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Dear Chair of the Budgets Committee, Dear Dr Van Overtveldt, Dear Vice-Chairs,
Distinguished members of the European Parliament, Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very honoured that you have invited me, a scientist presiding over the European Research Council, to speak to you today. Offering me time is a privilege I am grateful for. We all know this is a critical moment for Europe's future. You must address many pressing issues, and you are working night and day to get the right deal for Europe. After the historical budget agreement national leaders reached in July, we share the same deep concern about the cuts proposed in a rush to the budgets of future-oriented EU programmes among which Horizon Europe devoted to Research and Innovation.

In her State of the Union Address last week, President von der Leyen set out a compelling and positive vision of a future, that will be what WE make of it. The European economy needs to be kick-started, the green and digital transitions boosted. The responsibility to make Europe a fairer, more resilient and sustainable place for future generations falls upon us, and upon you in particular.

I am a proud and committed European, and I passionately want to work to build such a future.

I am also a proud and committed scientist, and I am absolutely certain that researchers can make a decisive contribution to turning such a vision into reality. And that is why I, and so many in the scientific community and beyond, were shocked to learn of these cuts that will deprive us of having the means to make our full contribution, when it is essential.

As you know, the budget for Horizon Europe, spanning 2021 – 2027, agreed upon in July, is €76 billion in the MFF in 2018 prices, plus €5 billion to be frontloaded from the new Recovery Fund. The current budget for Horizon 2020 for 2014 – 2020 is €76 billion in 2018 prices. Taking into account the departure of the UK introduces the illusion of an increase because the 2020 value of Horizon 2020 without the UK is over €11 billion. So, being below €77 billion, the Horizon Europe MFF budget would at best stagnate over 7 years, at a time when so much depends on it.

Let us remind ourselves why it is so important to fund research and innovation at EU level. EU research funding is there to achieve what no national one could achieve alone. Here are some key targets: to bring together the right combinations of knowledge and capabilities from across the continent to address major challenges; to provide opportunities to acquire and disseminate scarce skills and experience only available in specialised research centres; to create a chance through EU-wide competition for young people to be challenged and recognised as the best in Europe and not just in their local community. And I could give some more!

EU level funding allows a critical mass of public and private resources to be pulled together to make European research and industry more competitive, in a way national approaches cannot. In areas like quantum information, this is key. Put simply, it allows our researchers and companies to operate at the same scale as their US and Chinese counterparts: this is the added value of EU funding.

Such a scale is needed if we want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent, to reduce emissions by 55%, the new ambitious target set by President von der Leyen last week, or to become leaders in the use of industrial data and Artificial Intelligence. With those as front priorities, it certainly does not sound like a time when Europe should be dialling down its research investments!

Achieving technological sovereignty requires building an even more resilient and capable research base starting with fundamental science and develop new technologies and alternatives at EU level. Without this, there can be neither autonomy nor leadership. Doesn't that need more resources?

EU funds provide about 20% of the project funding available in Europe to complement what is provided at national level. Most of national funding goes towards essentials like salaries, buildings and equipment. European funding is key to open new areas of research. Don't we need more of them?

The private sector in Europe contributes on average 2/3 of all research expenditures. With the ongoing health and economic crisis, many worry this investment may decrease, forcing the public sector to step up its efforts to avoid a crash. Yet another reason for investing more at EU level!

Some may be tempted to target the EU research funding more selectively, as EU programmes did in the past, supporting mainly applied or industrial research. The aim was to try to match the US, then Japan, and now China just in certain technologies or sectors. Then, in 2007, a more creative EU took the risk of setting up the ERC. By funding all areas of research at EU level in a strict bottom-up approach, this new programme boosted the ambition of researchers and made the EU get much closer to the US in the number of most cited top articles, challenging a long standing domination.

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.

If Europe wants to be establish more balanced partnerships, then it cannot rely only on technologies developed by others. Therefore it cannot afford to invest less, while claiming it will achieve more!

When launched, the ERC was seen as a bold experiment. Even the idea that the EU should fund individual frontier researchers was contested by some. Nevertheless, it was kicked off with the very high ambition to become “the Champion’s League of Research in Europe” as Chancellor Angela Merkel worded it at the ERC launch under the then German EU presidency. A decade later, having funded some 10000 ambitious projects submitted by top scientists, the ERC has delivered on this!

Indeed, the ERC has become the de facto pan-European benchmark for research used by scientific institutions and countries. It truly lives up to its objective of raising the level, dynamism and creativity of the European research eco-system. Does Europe have less ambition now than it had in 2007?

Throughout history, the technology leaders of any given era tend to be at the forefront in all areas. Limiting oneself to specialise by sector is a strategy for followers. Because the truth is that science advances as a front. Advances in one area, sometimes very theoretical ones, open up opportunities in other areas, sometimes unexpected ones. ERC grantees gave many examples of such disruptive innovations in new materials, in drug delivery, in microscopy, in cybersecurity, etc. The coronavirus crisis was an excellent test of how justified it is to trust researchers to anticipate on crises: some 180 ERC projects already funded with 340 millions € proved relevant to address the pandemic!

Just three examples of big advances in recent years: Transportations: GPS was not developed for our personal vehicles; electric vehicles came back because of improved batteries; autonomous vehicles depend on advances in sensors and AI; many micro mobility solutions come from the wider app economy. None would have been funded by a specific transport research programme.

Materials: Thanks to access to the nanoscale, completely new materials with amazing mechanic and electrical properties could be designed; this was based on key progress in fundamental chemistry linked to the understanding of quantum phenomena; the massive efforts needed to better insulate our homes will require developing new industry sectors incorporating such breakthroughs.

Microscopy: Radically new approaches are being developed in the field, leading to new frontiers in the surveillance of illnesses, but also to the possibility of establishing a new industrial sector whose products should equip many of our hospitals to improve their efficiency and the service to citizens.

Many of our most pressing problems are societal. These problems will not be solved by, and may even be exacerbated by, technology alone. We need new ideas to address how fake news spread, how inequalities develop, how to improve education, how to live and work sustainably in the future. This requires a better understanding of these processes involving social scientists and modellers too.

So to conclude, the scientific community of Europe can make a huge contribution to achieving Europe's ambitions. It is ready, willing and able to do it! What we are asking is that the right financial means be provided for the next 7 years. EU research funding is vital because of its unique added value, it allows the EU to operate at the scale necessary to compete with global powers. Horizon Europe offers a panoply of instruments: clusters, missions, an innovation pillar and bottom-up actions such as Marie-Skłodowska-Curie and the ERC. It has to leave enough room for long-term visions. Focusing too much on the short-term will put the future seeds of innovation at risk, deprive us of unexpected solutions and will not offer adequate prospects for the next generation of researchers.

We know the new Recovery Fund needs to be implemented urgently and efficiently. But, in the coming weeks, Europe's leaders must find a way forward for an MFF consistent with the ambitious political goals they have proposed. You have repeatedly said that, to match its justified ambition, the Horizon Europe budget should be €120 billion, the minimum set by the Lamy report and the figure defended by the European Round Table for Industry. Only this budget level can make the goals credible. A reappraisal is urgently needed.

Providing the means to match an ambition is the basis of politics. I thank you for your attention.