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Jean-Pierre Bourguignon: Innovation driven by ambition

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council, discusses the case for funding high-risk projects and the need to help society understand the transformative power of science

French mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon will continue as head of the European research-funding initiative until the turn of the year

Léo Ramos Chaves

As he nears the end of his term as president of the European Research Council (ERC), which funds high-excellence research in a variety of fields, French mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, 71, says he is convinced that one of the most important things in the life of a researcher is creative freedom. “In a way, that is the goal that led to the creation of the ERC twelve years ago: ensuring that the most ambitious and innovative ideas get needed support,” says Bourguignon, who will be replaced in 2020 by Italian engineer Mauro Ferrari. The ERC is a European Union organization created in 2007 to support scientists in member countries as well as cross-border collaborations on frontier research. The institution manages 17% of the €77-billion budget for Horizon 2020, the bloc’s framework program for research and development. ERC grantees have won six Nobel Prizes and four Fields Medals, one of the top awards in mathematics.

Bourguignon visited São Paulo in early May for the 8th Annual Meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC). In the following interview, he discusses the importance of funding high-risk projects involving innovation and how the social and economic impact of curiosity-driven research can be assessed.

The ERC has funded approximately 9,000 frontier research projects to date. What are its objectives?
The ERC is the result of a long-standing advocacy effort by the European scientific community. There was a perception that the research programs of individual member countries could not accommodate big ideas coming from European researchers, and that the risk involved in more ambitious research projects had to be shared by the European Union. The ERC was created with a mission of giving researchers as much academic freedom as possible to pursue their ideas. To achieve this, a legal framework was needed that would permit funding to be granted to individual researchers. This was made possible when the Treaty of Lisbon reformulated the functioning of the European Union in 2007. The ERC has now become a very competitive source of funding—proposed projects are required to be genuinely innovative and involve scientific and technological risk. We have an annual budget of €1.8 billion, and this makes us highly selective. The 9,000 projects you mentioned were selected out of a candidate universe of over 65,000 proposals since the ERC’s inception.

Why is funding high-risk research important?
There are two sides to this question. The first is that the ERC funds research using tax money. That places a lot of responsibility on the institution, and it is not always easy to explain to the public why we fund projects that can ultimately fail. But we believe this provides a stimulus for new knowledge and can generate discoveries that we aren’t expecting. The second point is that the academic community tends to be highly conservative. Researchers review their peers’ work based on what they currently know. New ideas are often met with strong skepticism, which makes getting funding difficult. My job has been to convince members of the ERC’s evaluation committees that we need to take risks. If we have two promising projects, but one is more ambitious than the other, we should invest precisely in the one that is most ambitious.

But isn’t the private sector also conservative when it comes to risk-taking?
It depends on the profile of whoever is running the company. To be sure, corporate decisions are typically based on financial and economic rather than scientific factors. I’ll give you an example of a multinational corporation in the computer industry. I won’t tell you which company, but you would immediately recognize it if I did. Researchers at the company recommended a complete redesign of the operating system, which had been on the market for several years and was, they said, obsolete. The response they got from management was: the current system is churning out profits, why should we change it? Mindsets like these, based on financial aspects only, can create barriers to disruptive innovation. Of course, there are also corporations that are more visionary, such as Apple, which took risks in pioneering the smartphone market.

Projects involving multiple disciplines are more likely to succeed, including from an economic perspective

How can the case be made for high-risk investment in basic science to a layperson audience?
It is important to publicize those research projects that have delivered significant results, often after several years of research effort. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US and the Virgo interferometer in Europe are an example. These projects built on earlier theoretical work, and it took several years to construct the right equipment. They required highly sophisticated technology to identify and measure gravitational wave signals. And how can the investment in these machines be justified to the public? By showing that these facilities were recently able to demonstrate a phenomenon predicted by one of Albert Einstein’s theories.

But the public would also need to understand the relevance of the phenomenon, as the discovery provides no immediate benefits.
Yes, and that is why I believe that, in order to explain the transformative potential of research to the public, people need to have an understanding of both the basic as well as more recent concepts in science. Take biology, for example. This is a field that has seen countless transformations over time that have led to new conceptual frameworks emerging. The way biology was taught at schools in the past is very different from the way it is taught now—meshed with other disciplines, such as information technology and statistics. We now have disciplines like bioinformatics, in which research has generated a wealth of information about DNA sequences and proteins. Making sure this knowledge—which is being produced prolifically and in real time—reaches the public is a major challenge that requires a long-term effort until people become familiar with the surrounding concepts.

Many countries, including Brazil, are increasingly focused on ensuring research generates returns in the form of solutions to practical problems. Is curiosity-driven research at risk of being put on the back burner?
There are two issues that are central to this debate, in my opinion. The first is the time available to get answers. If you need a solution tomorrow or the day after, you will have to rely on information available today. This applies to urgent matters that require immediate action. In these cases, you will not want to invest in long-term research, much less in curiosity-driven, basic research. But to develop a new vaccine, for example, perhaps currently available knowledge is insufficient, and more basic research may be necessary. One ERC–funded project is exploring an entirely novel approach to developing vaccines by analyzing the chemical structure of the sugars used in many vaccine formulations. It is a basic research project but can potentially result in a new family of vaccines in the future. Many vaccines currently in early stages of development can potentially benefit from the study.

The ERC’s Consolidator Grants are described as grants for scientists who want to consolidate their independence. What does this mean?
Our grant categories are organized by level of candidate experience. A researcher who earned their doctorate degree 2 years ago is not at the same level as someone who earned their PhD 20 years ago. By the same token, we can’t expect younger researchers to have published large volumes of papers or to have led research teams. The Consolidator Grants category, for researchers with 7-12 years of experience since completion of their PhD, provides the means for them to create their own research team, providing a certain level of independence in their career. But independence is something relative and is difficult to measure. The concept of independence varies depending on the field. Mathematicians can become independent on completing their PhDs and proving to their peers that they are able to develop their own ideas. In other fields, researchers are more dependent on external factors. Biomedical engineers require equipment to do laboratory experiments, which they share with other users. They also require an organizational structure that includes technicians and volunteers. So it’s difficult to come up with an umbrella definition of what an independent researcher is.

Three years ago you announced that the ERC would begin monitoring outcomes from funded research to demonstrate the value of basic research to the public. How is this done?
There are many ways of measuring the impact of science on society. One impact which is often overlooked is the training that professionals involved in the project receive, regardless of the outcomes. Each stage in a research project helps to expand participants’ skill set. This is an intrinsic value of science, helping to train people who can then work in the public or private sector. At the ERC, projects are evaluated over a period of at least two years following completion. This evaluation is carried out by high-level experts selected by a scientific board. They assess projects on criteria such as scientific impact, the level of interdisciplinarity, novel methods, and social and economic impacts. Of the 225 projects evaluated in 2018, 16% led to a breakthrough, and 59% to a major scientific advance. In addition, 70% led to results that are applicable to areas of research outside the main focus of the project, and 60% brought together research areas that previously did not have much interaction. This indicates that there is a positive correlation between a project’s overall success and the degree of interdisciplinarity. Projects involving multiple disciplines are more likely to be successful, including from an economic perspective.

The number of Brazilian scientists acting as principal investigators in ERC projects has historically been surprisingly small given the country’s strong contingent of senior scientists

How does the ERC evaluate the impact from funded projects in humanities fields such as philosophy and sociology?
The social sciences and humanities account for a substantial portion of ERC projects. Our investments in these areas come to approximately €460 million. I recently spoke to a young researcher, Charlotte Ribeyrol, at the Sorbonne, in Paris, who is investigating the influence of color on British literature in the nineteenth century—which sounded fascinating. She had compiled a body of evidence showing that in the second half of the nineteenth century, new colors were emerging as a result of the industrial production of synthetic pigments and dyes, especially in the UK. She shows that, during that period, the names of these new colors began to appear in literary texts. One of the subjects of her research was the writer Oscar Wilde [1854–1900]. In one of his books he mentions mauve, a color between violet and magenta that had been synthesized by an English chemical engineer in 1856. Mauve soon became one of the most prevalent colors in the production of dyes for fabrics during that period. Her research showed how developments in industrial chemistry had had an influence on aesthetic movements.

Is the potential impact on society factored in the selection of funded projects?
The ERC makes a continuous effort to avoid impact being used as a criterion in selecting projects. That is not to say we are not at all interested in the potential impact from research. We just don’t want impact to be the primary factor. There are not a few cases where research results are different from those originally expected. People often begin with a clear idea of what they want, but realize midway that they can do something different than they had originally envisaged, often something quite surprising. This was the case, for example, of Cinzia Casiraghi, a nanoscience specialist at Manchester University. In one of her ERC-funded research projects, she developed a method of producing inkjet inks using graphene, an extremely strong and malleable material. Her research drew immediate attention from industry because of its potential applications in the production of smart packaging that is highly flexible and low cost to produce. Other graphene technologies developed by this researcher have attracted interest from heavyweights like Samsung. And if you discuss these projects with her, you’ll learn that those potential applications were not anticipated in the original project proposal.

What role can Brazilian researchers play in projects funded by the ERC?
There are two pathways for Brazilian scientists to participate in ERC-funded research. One is as a principal investigator. In this case, candidates are required to spend at least half of their total working time at a European institution and must submit a project proposal for selection in a competition. Another pathway is through an agreement with CONFAP [the Brazilian National Council of State Research Funding Agencies], under which Brazilian scientists can participate in ERC-funded research for annual periods of 3 months. The number of Brazilian scientists acting as principal investigators in ERC projects has historically been small, which comes as a surprise given the country’s size and its strong contingent of senior scientists. We know that the level of support for research in Brazil varies widely from one state to another, and that FAPESP has done an excellent job in the state of São Paulo. Another opportunity I would like to mention is the following: this year the ERC launched a grant scheme called Synergy, in which up to four researchers can join forces to address a truly ambitious scientific challenge. We created the possibility for one of the principal investigators to reside outside of Europe without their country of origin having to fund their participation in the project. At least 20% of project submissions this year include non-Europeans. I hope to see Brazilian participation in this program and further partnerships with European researchers, especially given the possibility of receiving ERC support at a time when research funding in Brazil is constrained.

What current areas of research do you see as most promising?
One field of research that has attracted attention from the ERC is quantum information science, one of the new frontiers of knowledge globally. By 2030, China will have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in this field, which uses quantum properties to improve the processing and transmission of information. Quantum information has also gained prominence as an area of research in Europe. In 2016, the European Commission announced the creation of the European Flagship for Quantum Technologies [EFQT], an initiative that will invest €1 billion over a period of 10 years. The ERC has lent support to researchers in this field in recent years, giving them the freedom and autonomy to develop and test new ideas. The ERC also helps to train scientists in Europe for large research programs, including projects in other important areas, such as new materials and biotechnology.