Interview with Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, European Research Council (ERC) President

Categories: Meet the researchers

Prof. Bourguignon, what has brought you to India this time?

The ERC visit to India is part of the awareness raising campaign, "ERC - Open to the World", to promote the ERC to the global scientific community. This has two sides. Firstly, it is to foster relations with the country's research funding bodies, and I therefore met with officials from Indian Ministries such as the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) and Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of S&T (DBT) to discuss ways to promote greater scientific exchange between ERC grantees and Indian researchers. Secondly, it is a chance to increase the number of applications to ERC calls from researchers based around the World. I am always very eager to visit universities and research institutions, and talk to researchers about the science they do, but also to inform them directly about the ERC grants. That's why I will go to the Indian Institute of Science, the National Centre for Biological Sciences and Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research during my week in India. I will also attend a EURAXESS India event in Dehli. Finally, I will participate in the meeting of the Global Research Council, a global discussion forum for heads of research funding agencies where we share best practice and learn from each other. At this year's meeting, the two topics chosen as focal point are “Interdisciplinarity”, and “Equality and Status of Women in Research.”


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, or INR 18.75 - 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. Nearly 1,000 of them are Indian nationals.

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!


Before we close this interview, 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.