Focusing on world’s best researchers – good for scientists, good for council

The new president of the European Research Council wants people to take risks and to be ambitious


The new president of the European Research Council wants to keep the organisation on the edge. He is not looking for safe and routine – he wants people to take risks.

“It would be catastrophic if the ERC became routine,” says Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon of Europe’s premier research funding body. “We push researchers to propose ambitious projects. We ask the best people to join us but we also ask them to take risks. When you take risks you don’t succeed all the time, but to get breakthroughs you have to take risks.”

The European Commission decided to take risks in setting up the organisation seven years ago. It didn’t need a replacement for the Framework Programme research budget, it wanted something different, a funding body that would help attract the attention of the world’s best researchers.

It got what it wanted in the ERC, and so too did the scientists, says Prof Bourguignon, who took over the presidency on January 1st. “The programme was designed exactly as the scientists wanted it. It encouraged the global science community to present their most advanced work. It provided long-term support, five years.”

It was also flexible, providing career- based backing at three different levels, young researchers, mid-term consolidators and advanced researches.

The low-key oversight meant that a researcher with an ERC grant could build an independent team, organising a group around themselves and with five years, the time to push a project through. “That is the only programme that allows that freedom,” he says.

The ERC now has an international reputation with scientists abroad, with some commenting it was “the best thing Europe did in the last 20 years for research”, Bourguignon adds. “Maybe it was showing there was something missing and the hole was filled properly.

“It is a mystery to me how after only seven years the ERC has got as far as it has. All of a sudden it made the very best scientists interested in Europe. Its fantastic visibility has to do with the fact that the dream they [scientists] had became a reality and arrived in the form they had hoped.”

Its rapid success, evidenced by the fact that winning an ERC grant is a major reputation builder, has meant competition ferocious. And this has served to depress Ireland’s success rate at winning these grants.

There are different ways of looking at the numbers, says the mathematician who was director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques from 1994-2013. The straight per capita numbers suggest we are doing fine, but you could also look at the number of grants compared to the total money mobilised for research – or you could count the number of citations for Irish research papers. “If you use these two criteria, Ireland definitely could do better,” he says.

Scientists based in Irish institutions have won 33 grants, out of the 585 evaluated by the council since 2007. Worth a combined €55 million, the great majority, 23, went to the younger cohort of researcher, so there was only limited follow through for our more senior scientists. Of the awards, 12 were for non-Irish researchers based here and 25 Irish scientists working outside of Ireland received grants.

The UK is among the most successful in terms of winning grant support from the ERC. “The decision to give a grant is based on the project, but you can be helped to prepare your project by the institution,” Bourguignon says.

“You need a good environment to work well so you need a good institution. The other part is the UK institutions assist in preparation of the application for the researcher. If you are helped in this preparation, as compared to someone who is not, in the end that can make a difference.”

Ireland, in fact, is attempting to improve its support programme for researchers seeking ERC grants, with better supports from their institutions and assistance from bodies such as Enterprise Ireland.

Ireland’s hit rate for ERC grants might also suffer because of the number of Irish scientists based abroad. Italy is one of the worst countries for this, he said.

“They have talented and well-trained scientists who are very successful outside Italy,” but they lack opportunities at home and many leave.

Irish researchers are also talented and well trained, he adds, “but maybe Ireland should work to get some of them to come back. It is not bad to be away but bad if they are lost to the country.”

Again, the UK does well in tempting scientists, particularly foreign nationals to come into its system. “The UK is extremely attractive for foreign students. The Irish are targets for the UK institutions.”

Prof Bourguignon has held the post for only three months but is enjoying the challenge. “It is attractive because you work with scientists all the time and we are trying to get the best scientists working with us.” The commission is also fully behind the council and its work. This helps to build on the council’s success.

“My duty and responsibility is to make sure the success continues.”