Ben Ray talks to Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon who was the head of the European Research Council until December 2019.
“We must speak up for research” – the ERC president on Europe, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon.
After six years at the helm of the European Research Council (ERC), its president Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon stepped down at the end of December 2019. A flagship component of the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme, the ERC encourages and funds the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and supports investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence.
In his time as ERC president, Bourguignon developed a reputation for his combination of determination, tirelessness and kindness, along with a good dose of political savvy and occasional brass knuckle. One example of this was in 2015, when he helped to stop money intended for research being siphoned off to the Juncker Plan investment fund. Bourguignon recalls how he mobilised the scientific community and organised a coalition of Nobel Prize winners to intervene: “I talked to many people. Carlos Moedas (former research commissioner) helped us greatly. We started a campaign – in the end, we got 500 articles all over the press,” Bourguignon says. Thanks to this the ERC, the Marie-Sklodowska Curie Actions and the widening participation programme were ring-fenced, saving €500 million for research in an instance that hints at the drive and dedication with which the president goes about his work.
When pushed to discuss one of the things he is most proud of in his time as president, Bourguignon talks of the sustained focus of the ERC on scientific quality as its sole criterion for funding: “European geography and institutions do not matter in our judgement process”. He also mentions the ERC’s continued commitment to curiosity driven research – as the 2019 Nobel Prize winner and ERC grantee Sir Peter Ratcliffe calls it, ‘passion-led research’. The past six years have also seen a steady growth in female applicants to ERC grants, and in non-European applications from 6% to 8%. The funding available to scientists is keeping the continent’s best talent in Europe and even attracting European talent abroad back to the EU. In Bourguignon’s words: “This is something we at the ERC are all immensely proud of.”
On the wall of his office, Bourguignon has a world map with one of the ERC’s mottos ‘Open to the world’ – a signifier of another part of his legacy. Having the international dimension of the ERC grow and its recognition become more global, he says, has been a key part of his action as president. Under his tenure the ERC has drawn up 12 international agreements with countries across the globe, and Bourguignon has travelled widely to represent and fight for the organisation, visiting nearly every country in the EU on his travels. Only last week, he points out, he was in Lithuania, visiting ministers and top scientists in Vilnius to encourage more Lithuanian ERC applications. It is this enthusiasm and belief in the power and effectiveness of research that is evident throughout all of his work – from his earlier career as a mathematician and president of the European Mathematical Society to his current position fighting for curiosity-led, frontier research. It is clear that he has a real passion for these fields, and it is common knowledge that he enjoys speaking to scientists and researchers wherever he travels. On his wall is also a piece of calligraphy by the late Shiing-Shen Chern, one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century to whom he says he owes a considerable amount, which reads ‘maths is fun’.
Bourguignon has recently been vocal in his calls for the EU institutions to fight for an ambitious research budget in the next Multiannual Financial Framework, urging them to not be afraid of funding frontier research. With the EU’s current research programme Horizon 2020 set to be replaced in 2021 with Horizon Europe, the need for increased funding in the field of research is more important than ever. “My hope was the budget share of the ERC would grow a bit higher than it most likely will,” he says, noting that there are “500 excellent proposals we can’t fund every year” in the ERC’s massively oversubscribed application process. “Research that allows our best minds to explore and question whatever they want across multiple disciplines is vital to Europe and to the world”, he states: “it will help to find answers to our most important questions in ways we do not yet understand.”
When asked if he has a message to share with others, Bourguignon is unequivocal. “My call to the community is – speak up! Make your voices heard and organise yourselves!” In these days of fake news, he says, speaking up for science is hugely important and matters greatly both to the scientific profession and to society at large, as scientists pose many of the relevant questions and contribute to the answers that we are all looking for. And is there a specific change in society that he thinks is particularly important to note? “I think our society is moving from a written medium to a visual one,” Bourguignon says. “We consume images every day, with shortening attention spans to match.” We must thus ensure we do not devalue or lose the skill and nuance that written communications brings, as it allows a depth and complexity of meaning and distance to emotions that images often cannot convey.
January 2020 sees Bourguignon step back from the role of president to be replaced by nano-biologist Professor Mauro Ferrari, who was most recently president and chief executive of the Houston Methodist Research Institute. Only time will tell what Ferrari will bring to this challenging and high-profile role, but for now it is clear that Bourguignon has left his mark on the ERC. And does he have any advice for the upcoming president? “Talk and listen to everyone – across Brussels, across the EU and beyond. Help comes from many places, and there will always be new battles to fight.”