Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon: new no-nonsense ERC President

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon has just been nominated President of the ERC for four years, renewable once. He is a French mathematician specialised in differential geometry, a field now often referred to as global analysis, and its connection to theoretical physics. He was trained at the prestigious elite school École Polytechnique. His appointment has been announced as he just retired following a long career at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Since 1994, he has been the director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS), an atypical multidisciplinary research institute, which is a private foundation, specialised in the theoretical aspects of sciences such as mathematics, physics and biology, staffed by two field medallists and regularly visited by two more. He shares his vision for his new role with EuroScientist, in his first official interview after being nominated.

What is your motivation to accept the ERC nomination?

The ERC has been a fantastic success. There are many signs of it. The ERC grantees are very distinguished and are selected by committees of very distinguished scientists. In its brief existence, in the past six years, this institution has become an obvious player. My motivation to be involved with the ERC stems from my continued involvement in European affairs for many years. Not only in my previous capacity as European Mathematical Society’s second president, between 1995 and 1998, but also throughout my research career. And via my long participation as committee member of all EuroScience Open Fora (ESOF), after having taken part in the birth of EuroScience.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, what is the most challenging part of the job?

A new feature of the president’s role is to combine the role of chairing the European Research Council, an independent body, with that of representing European science in international negotiations, obviously under the European Commission’s supervision. This new dimension provides access to political leaders. The duality of this role also means that one of its challenges will be to make it work constructively.

Would your perspective as a mathematician affect the way you will steer the ERC in the next four years?

My experience of mathematics is that it is a discipline which is still cohesive; applied and pure mathematicians form a continuum. Such a situation is possible because the field has not expanded to the extent that biology has, for example. Mathematics is contributing to the development of many disciplines in science. It has made me aware of the global challenge for European research to keep high-visibility. That such a visibility exists in my own field is what made it possible for me to develop many contacts at the highest levels in countries such as Japan or China.

What are the challenges ahead for the ERC?

Because of the length of ERC research contracts, for the first time, there will be recipients of previous grants reapplying. The image ERC projects to the outside world will be affected by the way ERC deals with this situation. If the contracts tend to be awarded to the same scientists over and over again, there is a risk that ERC will be perceived as a ‘closed club.’

The second key challenge is linked to the fact that we are looking for scientists, who are the most creative, and innovative. Due to these criteria, the support ERC gives is not equally distributed geographically. Central and Eastern Europe, for example, receive less funding. ERC has become such a sign of excellence that most research institutions in Western Europe have done their best to attract the best scientists from many places including Eastern and Central Europe. In the long term, complaints about this situation could come from there, in particular at the political level, and create a problem. Maybe the ERC does not have the answer itself. It would be worth checking what the likes of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US do to redress geographical imbalance. We need to come up with creative solutions. My point is not to challenge what has been done but to anticipate steps that can be taken to deal with the new situation.

What should be our relationship with non-European research partners?

Europe should be concerned with developing a European science embedded in global science. Without borders. There is a concern that the flow of people is only one way, out of the EU. The key is to show eagerness to attract scientists from outside Europe. Talks with counterparts such as the NSF in the US, to develop a global scientific perspective at the highest level, have already been initiated. This is to ensure that countries don’t take away from each other.

We have also to be aware of the massive level of investment in science made in countries such as China, Korea, etc. Europe cannot claim to be a first-rate player if European research investments are falling behind. With its broadened mandate the ERC president will have to be involved in building bridges with emerging economies. I will try and involve the European Research Council directly in supporting this new function. For example, It is important for historical reasons that Europe pays attention to promising new developments in Africa. The new role should encompass discussions on what are the implications of the development of global research.

How do you deal with critique coming from those left out of the criteria of excellence?

ERC applications are very challenging. Even more so that people who apply have performed some self-selection already. The ERC programmes were not designed as a system to distribute money widely.

I understand the argument of not pushing the notion of excellence too far. The amount of money available has to be allocated in a proper way taking into account the needs of scientists. For example, some countries ensure that the part of the salary of the ERC grantee covered by the grant is reallocated to the same laboratory, so that other members of the lab benefit indirectly of the ERC support. Too large discrepancies in resources could lead to tensions that can push people to refuse to collaborate. Such potential problems need to be taken seriously.

Is there a role for the ERC in encouraging innovation?

The ERC has so-called ‘proof of concept’ programmes. It allows an ERC grantee to ask for a small extension of funds to show that their research has an impact on innovation. From what I heard, it has had a mixed success. I am certainly not objecting to the idea of research being connected to innovation. But, it is too naïve to think that it will happen automatically. We need to have industries or services approaching scientists themselves. We need to make sure there is a link between scientists and engineers, through a chain of technology transfer. However, the goal of the ERC funding programmes is certainly not to look for applications with mainly innovation in mind

What is your biggest ambition in your new role?

I would like to embark the European Research Council in an efficient campaign to encourage the emergence of the next generation of scientists in Europe. In view of the present situation resulting from wrong policies and the deep economic crisis in Europe, there is a real threat to lose an entire generation of people, because they choose not to become scientists. If we could manage to raise this issue to the global consciousness, and to prove the need for such a campaign, a significant progress would have been achieved.

In many countries, we have already recorded a decline in the number of young people who are studying science, even if they have the capacity, as they consider it a dead-end. Very young kids have to believe that there is a future for them as scientists. Some actions have to be set in schools as well as in the media. Currently, the respect and recognition for scientists in the media is not very high. I am conscious that it is a fantastic challenge. A conjugated effort is needed in order to be convincing enough. If we don’t do it, Europe is going to miss qualified scientists. It is not an option.

Find out more in our exclusive video interview.

Featured image credit: Jean-François Dars

Sabine Louët

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