In this edition of Meet the Researche we meet again the Euorpean Research Council President, Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, who visited us recently here in China and delievered a lecture in UCAS named “ERC and China: Achievements and Perspectives” . See the report here.
Since its creation in 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded research grants worth nearly €11 billion to more than 6,000 scientists and scholars from all over the world, both early-career and senior, carrying out their ambitious research projects in all scientific disciplines. This includes some researchers of non-European nationality working in prestigious institutions across Europe and the ERC encourages more talent top researchers from around the world to apply, joining the ranks of the ERC grant holders. Currently, there are 16 Chinese researchers holding ERC grants. What's more, an estimate shows that some 1200 Chinese nationals works as team members in the ERC-funded teams.
In conjunction with the ERC's participation in the World Economic Forum's Annuel Meeting of the New Champions, also called Summer Davos, in Tianjin, the ERC President also delivered a public lecture at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. EURAXESS China had the chance to talk to him about the European Research Council's international commitment.
What does the ERC have to offer researchers outside Europe? Does the international researcher need to be based in Europe to be an ERC grantee?
First and foremost, the ERC grants are appealing because researchers are totally free to propose topics they find the most challenging and to organise their support the way they find the most appropriate. The funding is substantial, both in terms of grant amount - up to EUR 2.5 million - and in terms of length - up to five years. They are open to researchers working in all research disciplines. What's more, the grants are very flexible and give researchers tremendous autonomy to pursue their scientific ideas. By now the "prestige" of the ERC label of excellence makes the grants coveted by scientists. ERC grantees I meet often underline that the application process is very simple and user-friendly and that red tape is kept to a minimum. We want scientists to focus on what they are best at - doing science!
Researchers of any nationality, regardless of their current place of work, can apply for ERC funding, provided that they have a contractual relation with an institution based in Europe and are ready to spend at least 50% of their working time there. This means that - after being awarded an ERC grant - they can keep the affiliation with their research organisation in their country of origin, if they so wish, for the rest of the time. Several ERC grantees who moved to Europe have testified that leaving their country does not mean leaving their networks behind or burning bridges.
There are also other incentives for international researchers to apply for ERC funding, such as additional funds to cover start-up costs for those moving to Europe, amounting to up to EUR 1 million extra. What is also worth noting is that team members taking part in an ERC-funded project can be based in non-EU countries as long as it is justifiable and well explained in the candidate's application.
How important is it to the ERC to engage researchers working outside Europe in its funding schemes?
It is part of the ERC's mission to attract the best scientists from outside Europe. Top research is an intrinsically international endeavour. We know that bright minds exchange ideas across borders and continents, so we should let them collaborate freely to progress and to make ground-breaking discoveries. The ERC encourages such "brain circulation" and ultimately also aims to make Europe a prime location for top talent globally.
Does the ERC give priority to younger researchers? If so, how is this done?
Yes, the ERC is serious about early-career researchers. Two thirds of the overall ERC budget go to the most promising young minds. They should be empowered early in their careers and be given maximum scientific freedom. Top scientists with as little as two years of experience after their PhD are already eligible to apply for ERC grants.
Let me also point out that, on average, each ERC grant holder employs around six team members, of which many are post docs and PhD students. In this way, the ERC also supports a new generation of researchers. An estimate shows that around 17%, or some 6,500, of these team members are nationals of countries outside Europe.
Participation of women as ERC grantees: Which percentage of the total ERC grantees (2007-2015) are female principal investigators? What is the ERC doing to attract promising female researchers to become grantees?
The ERC Scientific Council takes the view that women and men are equally able to perform excellent frontier research. Currently, around 21% of grantees are women; this lower share of women mirrors the overall situation in science in Europe. It has created a dedicated Working Group on gender balance in 2008 to work towards closing the gap, without deviating from the principle of having scientific quality as its sole criterion for selection. The Working Group focuses on counteracting gender bias and encouraging more female scientists to apply for ERC grants. For example, to help female scientists who are mothers, the ERC allows them to have their eligibility window extended by 18 months per child, when applying for ERC funding. So for example, if a scientist has one child, and she obtained her PhD eight years earlier, she can still apply for a grant in the category of the youngest researchers (although the general rule is that only those who received their PhD between two to seven years are eligible).
Is it possible for researchers who do not hold an ERC grant to be associated with an ERC grantee's team?
Yes, the ERC wants to encourage its grantees to engage even more with fellow scientists in the global research community and motivate international talent to take part in ERC-funded projects in Europe, in particular young researchers. As said, we believe in "brain circulation". To inspire such global scientific exchange, the ERC has already a number of agreements (so called "implementing arrangements") in place with renowned research funding agencies outside Europe to provide opportunities for early-career scientists to temporarily join research teams run by ERC grant holders. In 2012, the ERC launched the first of such initiatives with the US National Science Foundation (NSF). By now, agencies in another six countries on four continents have signed such agreements, namely South Korea, Argentina, Japan, China, South Africa and Mexico. And there are more countries lined up, so stay tuned!
Let's focus on the Implementing Agreement with ERC's Chinese partner, the National Science Foundation of China (NSFC).
We have signed the agreement with NSFC in 2015, and we launched the call for expression of interest on our side in October 2015. On our side, we saw more than 400 ERC grantees who showed interest in hosting Chinese researchers in their teams. Significant number already had in mind a specific person who they wanted to host. However, the response from researchers funded by NSFC was relatively low. This is a new agreement so we still need to promote it better, identify obstacles, if any, and work on them.
Some researchers may have also confused it with the new H2020 Co-funding Mechanism with China - which has nothing to do with ERC-NSFC Agreement. This should now be clarified and researchers will hopefully be open to the new opportunity to work in ERC-funded teams. We'd like to see this agreement with NSFC flourish, for top talent to get to know each other better, to discover the resources and ideas of the other side. After a slow start, I hope this initiative will soon be successful.
Do you have any tips for potential ERC grant applicants?
Plan it well in advance. Competition is tough, so take the time to carve out the best possible application. You also need to show in your proposal that your research project will push the frontiers of knowledge, and that it is not just incremental research. Before applying, ask yourself "what is it that is innovative about my project?". I would also advise applicants to try to speak to ERC grantees in the same field of research who can share their experience and provide advice. Lastly, the researcher needs to apply with a host institution in Europe, so it is crucial to establish contacts and find one early on before applying for ERC funding.
You have extensive experience with China; your collaboration with Chinese mathematicians spans over 35 years. What impression do you have about the current state of China's S&T?
The first time I came to China was in 1981. This is my thirty-seventh visit here, so I have witnessed the massive change the country has undergone. The government's current strategy is to develop research and innovation, in terms of both facilities and training of people. Development of both applied and fundamental research is in demand by the Chinese scientific community. This need is recognized by the government.
Improving the quality, and proper evaluation of research, is becoming an important issue. Growth of large-scale research facilities in China is another important area. They might be relevant only for specific areas, but for those they are critical. However, such facilities - think for instance of Europe's CERN - are complex to manage, as you need not only top scientists, but also engineers and managers.
With China and other emerging economies becoming scientific powerhouses, what advice do you have to European researchers? How can they embrace the situation?
Europe has a long tradition of higher education and research, but because of the economic crisis, a number of governments cut their national research budgets. On the contrary, the EU increased its budget for research and innovation in its programme, Horizon 2020, of which ERC is a part of. A few years ago China has surpassed the EU in terms of R&D spending. What that means for European researchers is that they can focus on searching for quality in Chinese research.
Collaboration with emerging powerhouses, not just China, is critical. European researchers should not be shy to engage with their Chinese colleagues. We have to be present in China, be involved with China. We have to be open to collaboration and to all challenges it might bring, as this will make us stronger. The ERC is open to the world.
Thank You Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon!
About Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon
President of the ERC as of 1 January 2014
Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon was the Director of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS) from 1994 till 2013. This international research institute located near Paris, France, was built as the European counterpart of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was also the first ERC Panel Chair in Mathematics, for Starting Grants.
A mathematician by training, he spent his whole career as a fellow of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He held a Professor position at École polytechnique from 1986 to 2012. From 1990 to 1992, he was President of the Société Mathématique de France and President of the European Mathematical Society from 1995 to 1998. He is a former member of the Board of the EuroScience organisation (2002-2006) and served on EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) committees since 2004.
Professor Bourguignon received the Prix Paul Langevin in 1987 and the Prix du Rayonnement Français in Mathematical Sciences and Physics from the Académie des Sciences de Paris in 1997. He is a foreign member of the Royal Spanish Academy of Sciences. In 2005, he was elected honorary member of the London Mathematical Society and has been the secretary of the mathematics section of the Academia Europaea. In 2008, he was made Doctor Honoris Causa of Keio University, Japan, and, in 2011, Doctor Honoris Causa of Nankai University, China.