Exclusive: Q&A with Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the ERC, on its work to engage East Europe

Exclusive: Q&A with Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the ERC, on its work to engage East Europe

The next meeting of the scientific council of the European Research Council (ERC) takes place – for the first time – in Zagreb, Croatia, this month (20-22 October 2014).

I recently spoke to Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, who took over as president of the ERC in January, about what the ERC can do to improve research in East Europe.

The ERC is the 1st pan-European funding body for frontier research, funding only the very best researchers and selecting them through rigorous, peer-reviewed competitions.

It has €13.1 billion to spend until 2020, on an estimated 7,000 grant recipients and 42,000 of their team members, offering research training for nearly 11,000 doctoral and 16,000 postdoctoral researchers.

But of some 4,500 projects it has funded since it was first set up in 2007, just relatively few went to countries in Eastern Europe. For example, countries such as Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Estonia and Slovakia so far hold only a couple of grants each, if any at all. Others are doing somewhat better with between around 10 and 39 grants each (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary).

Here’s what Bourguignon had to say about fixing the imbalance.

East European countries are still lagging in drawing on European Union funding for science – what can be done to help them?

Unfortunately we cannot do anything directly. We consider the problem very serious, so we need to show that we have this view. One thing that I did in the name of the ERC scientific council was to write to Science Ministers to tell them that we regard this as a serious issue that needs to be addressed. And that we’re willing to help, in particular by encouraging them to mobilise their scientific communities in order to channel some of the money from EU structural funds into the field of research. These funds represent 100 billion Euro and up to 40% of that can be used for infrastructure and capacity building.

How can countries use those structural funds to support the best scientists?

A typical example of capacity building could be having special grants to support researchers who pass the first step of the ERC grant competitions, but don’t succeed in the second step and therefore remain unfunded. If they could receive some support at the national level – with money from the structural funds – they could score higher. Few countries have done that so far but it’s definitely possible. So we would like to accompany the national scientific communities of these countries to really push their governments in this direction.

I am committed to visit these countries. I will be in Bulgaria soon and we will hold our Scientific Council plenary meeting in Croatia in October, where we will also meet people from the region, such as Slovenia.

We see the uneven distribution of ERC grants as a problem, as said. If the performance doesn’t change, at some point national politicians may consider that the ERC is not so positive for them, as they may put some more money in than they get back, and may also be afraid of brain drain. And of course it should be avoided that it comes to this.

What can those countries do to turn the tide? Are there any success stories?

Sure, some countries have really taken it very seriously. A very good example is Poland, which has completely reformed its system taking, basically, the ERC as a reference. I’m sure that very quickly we’ll see the effect on Polish applicants.

The ERC has created a working group specifically to address this issue – called Widening European Participation.

Is there a point where people can exchange examples of successes and failures, what works and what doesn’t for such countries?

We have a structure called national contact points, based in the various counties who provide information to potential applicants. They gather regularly in Brussels to receive updates on the ERC and its schemes. Some proactive universities are willing to invite national contact points coming from countries performing less well to take part in their training sessions on how to accompany scientists submitting proposals. Some institutions are very much aware that in the long term, having too much imbalance is going to affect the whole system. So, I think, for the benefit of everybody, actually, sharing more will be good.

Of course, if some of the very brightest people from these countries do very good research abroad and then come back, it’s not really a loss –, they lose them for some time, but in the end you get back scientists with more experience and international networks and so on. But you must be sure that this happens. If you just lose them for ever then that’s very bad.

Do these countries need to work together to build up networks of critical mass to be more successful at applying for ERC grants?

It’s difficult to tell. The grants go to individual scientists. In order for them to do very good research they need an environment in which they have proper facilities.

But it’s not necessarily a huge facility that makes a difference – it’s having group of excellent collaborators.

I know, for example, Romania reasonably well: Romanian mathematics is really very, very good, and I don’t understand why some Romanians don’t have ERC grants in mathematics because I know their level – some of them have been my students, actually – and we know they are absolutely comparable to the very best people you find elsewhere. In terms of their intrinsic quality they’re already there – it’s just putting things in the right perspective.

You don’t need necessarily a huge investment. It’s true that at some stage to have high-level training you need a critical mass to attract the very best students, but in some disciplines this critical mass already exists. For example in Romania, there is no need to improve the training of mathematicians – it’s already equivalent to what you find elsewhere.

So what do you need to do to for them to start winning more ERC grants?

Probably you need to have universities, or the academy in the case of Romania, to understand a bit better that you need to accompany their applicants. Helping them prepare their applications is useful For the interview stage of the ERC competitions it’s good that people are already trained to be challenged with questions and so on, so that when they come for the interview they’re not completely taken by surprise. Making sure that they’re comfortable enough with English is also important, which may sound surprising but you need to be able to express you way if you are going to explain your research.

The investment to make this happen is not so huge. It’s the state of mind that you really want to be proactive on this matter. A good example is Hungary, a country whose infrastructure could be better at the moment, but which has an extraordinary intellectual history, and is doing remarkably well in the ERC calls.

We’re also in favour of encouraging grantees who have left their home country to be helped to come back; this coul be by accompanying them and organising joint seminarsfor instance. As a scientific council, we don’t have the means to bring people together but we help by trying to connect them, and convince governments that it is valuable to have seminars with all ERC grantees of a certain country even if they’re based abroad. Luckily, some of them are willing to do that for instance in Hungary.

Are there mechanisms for Western countries to put up research labs in Eastern Europe?

Certainly, this exists already. The other framework programme makes that easier through networks that we don’t have. But some ERC grantees can have subsidiaries outside their own country and they sign agreements with other labs elsewhere to do joint work.

Should Eastern European countries provide their own funding to ERC applicants who go through the first round of application but don’t get the grant? Could it act as a quality evaluation step for national funding?

That’s what we hope. And that’s my message any time: please consider this. But the decision is necessarily their own, we are not here to push them into anything. We argue that ‘look, the selection has been very tough, they’ve passed it, so it’s a good sign’.

Is anyone doing that yet?

Yes, several countries have been doing that. It’s with the financial crisis that some countries stopped these schemes, I think, due to budget constraints.

You mentioned Poland and Hungary as success examples – what can other Eastern European countries learn from them?

Poland is completely transforming their organisation of research and I am pretty sure that very soon we will see the positive effect. At some point the government of Poland looked for serious advice from Polish scientists who argued that ‘competition now is a very critical value for developing science in our country’ and the government took it seriously.

Hungary has already been quite successful in the ERC. It’s not such a big country and yet it already has a significant number of ERC grantees. They try to do even better.

There are some other issues, which have to do with salaries; there’s are major differences between countries regarding whata professor.

Other success examples are Denmark and the region of Catalonia. The latter introduced a variety of [policy] structures and now has half of all ERC grantees in Spain – though it’s not half of Spain – with a high level and diversity of topics covered.

There’s really a constellation of structures that have been put in place in a very efficient way and complementary to one another … and the amount of money which was mobilised to do this was not that big, it was more about making the structures more agile, moving away slightly from the typical bureaucracy you often have in a state organisation.

It shows that resources are not the whole story – of course you need some resources – but you above all need to come up with a proper organisation with the right mindset; realising that it makes a difference to start saying ‘we need to change, too’ – that’s the point.

EuroScientist is looking for contributors!

If you would like to write guest posts in EuroScientist magazine, send us your suggestions of articles at office@euroscientist.com.


Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by École polytechnique

Mićo Tatalović

Science journalist at New Scientist
Mićo Tatalović is environment and life science news editor at New Scientist magazine. He is also the chair of the board of the Association of British Science Writers and is actively involved in promoting science journalism in South-East Europe.
He runs the EuroScientist blog Balkan Science Beat.
Mićo Tatalović

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.