An interview with ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

12 March 2017
​10 years have passed since the European Research Council was born in 2007, when it had for its first year a ‘limited’ budget of EUR 300 million to distribute to Europe’s brightest minds. A decade later, the ERC has proven itself invaluable to the betterment of science across Europe and commands an annual budget of EUR 1.8 billion – an incredible story of growth never before seen in this field. On this important anniversary, it is the perfect time to check in with ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon and find out more about the past, present and future of this star in the firmament of European research funding.

It’s been 10 years since the ERC was formed. In your opinion, do you think the Council’s achievements in the last decade have lived up to expectations?
Jean-Pierre: “Absolutely, and the ERC even surpassed them, thanks to the dedication and commitment of the ERC's Scientific Council members, the ‘founding mothers and fathers’ of the ERC, and all people who worked for it. The project was created from scratch and respected a bottom-up approach from day one. The goal was to provide long-term support to ambitious projects proposed by individual researchers themselves. The  demand is very high; researchers submitting proposal to ERC competitions have a 10% success rate, which
is highly competitive. By now, the ERC has already funded some 7000 leading researchers across Europe, pursuing their best scientific ideas.

Evaluators working in ERC panels are superb and make the difference here. The peer review evaluation process for candidate projects is very carefully designed and performed by top-class researchers from all over the globe. As a result, after just 10 years, the ERC has an established reputation for quality. Usually, omething like this takes several decades to achieve.”

What do you think is a good indicator that you’re ‘doing it right’ in terms of sponsoring excellent science?
Jean-Pierre: “Over the last few years, according to recent independent studies, over 70% of the projects the ERC has funded resulted in scientific breakthroughs or major scientific advances. That is strong evidence of the ERC success. In Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s new framework program which started in 2014 and which the ERC is a part of, the structure of the ERC was left virtually untouched and its budget confirmed. This is excellent proof that the scheme is good. A new feature, that came about as two existing functions were merged, was the creation of the position of the ERC president. A core part of my job is to maintain the relationship between the European Commission and the ERC Scientific Council, which is independent.

Even more compelling is the fact that the ERC budget will grow between 2017 and 2020, enabling the ERC
not only to fund even more talent in Europe, but also to develop new tools and create more diverse programs. Synergy is one example: this grant scheme – to be re-launched in 2018 – will be awarded to multiscientists,
multidisciplinary projects, tackling very ambitious scientific challenges”.

What do you think will be the most significant challenges for the ERC in the years to come?
Jean-Pierre: “In my opinion, keeping the ERC's world-leading position is number one on the list of challenges. Being at the top is not an excuse to become complacent. We must continue to convince the best researchers in the world to submit and evaluate projects – it’s important for scientists to be encouraged to do so.

We also face challenges present within the wider scientific community, such as fostering a healthy gender balance. With 26% women applicants, we’re doing OK, but we want to go further (without 10 Years departing for our commitment to have quality as sole selection criterion). Another challenge is to support and encourage scientists from European countries who are currently underrepresented in ERC calls.

Another huge and ongoing priority is to make the case that ‘blue sky research’ – a bottom-up approach to research that allows scientists to pursue answers to the questions that compel them most – is one of the best ways of furthering the scientific and economic success of the EU. With that objective in mind, the ERC offers a top-up grant, called Proof of Concept, to ERC grantees to help them on their way to bring their scientific successes closer to the market or tackle societal challenges.”

Do you think VIB and other EU-LIFE centers of excellence have important roles to play in overcoming these challenges?
Jean-Pierre: “Institutions like VIB are vital to the training and support of researchers – at the highest level and in the best environments. I am greatly impressed by EU-LIFE’s excellent support of young scientists; 2/3 of all ERC funding goes to early- to mid-career researchers.

Nurturing the next generation of researchers is critical to our response to challenges and obstacles
Institutions like VIB must give students the very best support and create a stimulating atmosphere that
encourages ambition – which resonates in tune with the overarching mindset of the ERC itself.”

​Go back to the overview '10 Years European Research Council'

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, ERC president