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Perspectives on EU research




 Organiser(s)
EU Centre, INSEAD and NTU

 Date
11 February 2015 (Wednesday)
 Venue
INSEAD Asia Campus, 1 Ayer Rajah Avenue, Singapore 138676

 Time
11.00am-1.30pm

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Event Report [print/PDF]

The EU Centre in Singapore, INSEAD and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) co-organised a public lecture by Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council (ERC) on 11 February 2015. The lecture covered perspectives on EU research and was delivered at INSEAD’s Asia Campus in the one-north area with the attendance of about 150 researchers and industry professionals.

Professor Bourguignon began his lecture with an overview of the EU’s Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), noting that it was second only to the US. The EU has also produced more scientific articles than any other region although the US has a much higher share of the most influential scientific articles. In all, the EU contributes to 10 per cent of the most cited publications worldwide. 30 000 publications have acknowledged ERC support as of September 2014 and 12 per cent of these publications were in the top one per cent most cited in their scientific field and year of publication. Additionally, 20 per cent of completed Life Sciences (LS) and Physical Sciences and Engineering (PE) projects reported at least one patent, with an average of two patents reported per project. As a mark of the ERC’s achievements, Professor Bourguignon noted that two Fields Medals and three Nobel Prizes were awarded to ERC grantees in 2014.

The ERC was set up by the European Commission (EC) in 2007 in response to growing calls for a Europe-wide organisation to support frontier research. The ERC has since funded over 4300 top researchers representing 65 nationalities.

Strategically, the ERC supports frontier research in all fields of science and humanities with no predetermined subjects, targeting high gain and high risk ambitious projects in particular. It is governed by an independent 22-member Scientific Council which has full authority over funding (which originates from the EC) and evaluation, supported by the autonomous ERC Executive Agency which efficiently manages the grants. The Scientific Council meets approximately every two months and appoints more than 2500 rotating scientists to 150 15-member panels a year to rigorously evaluate grant proposals as part of its international peer-review mechanism.

The ERC distinguishes itself by offering independence, recognition and visibility to researchers. This is achieved by providing true financial autonomy for five years with a grantee allowed to work on a research topic and with a team of their choice. The grantee negotiates with the host institution the best conditions of work and grants are portable across Europe if necessary. These conditions tend to attract additional funding and gain the recognition of the research community.

In the 2014 call alone the ERC selected 328 young researchers in a highly competitive process (10 per cent success rate). The ERC has researchers working in almost 600 different institutions in 32 countries. Professor Bourguignon observed that there was a benchmarking effect in how national programmes and agencies have allocated funding for the best ‘runners-up’ who were cut at the last stage of the ERC evaluation process and stated that he encourages countries to continue this practice where possible.

Professor Bourguignon emphasised the priority the ERC has placed on funding early-stage Principal Investigators (two-thirds of ERC grants). He further stressed that the ERC also took into consideration gender and geographical balance. To encourage more female participation, the ERC provides an 18-month extension per child when a female applicant’s track record is being evaluated. In terms of geographical diversity, Professor Bourguignon mentioned that 28 per cent of post-doctoral team members and 17 per cent of PhDs were non-European.

Professor Bourguignon also highlighted some of the factors attracting researchers from outside Europe, including:

-          an additional €500 000 to €1 million ‘start-up’ fund for scientists moving to Europe;

-          the ability for grantees to keep an affiliation with their home institutes outside Europe as long as they spend at least 50 per cent of their time in Europe;

-          the possibility for team members to be based outside Europe

-          further support from European countries/host institutions which assist applicants and reward grantees with top-up funds

As of 2014, three Singaporeans have received Starter and Consolidator grants. While seemingly small, this compares favourably in proportion to China’s eight. There has also been a significant increase in applications by non-European nationals for grants in 2014.

In closing, Professor Bourguignon acknowledged the potential for future cuts to the ERC budget and encouraged national governments to maintain its funding and support. The ERC currently makes up 17 per cent, or €13.1 billion, of the overall Horizon 2020 budget.

Researchers in attendance raised several pertinent issues during the Q&A session. One researcher asked if a grant applicant could exclude an individual from the peer review panel if the latter was a competitor of the former. Professor Bourguignon stated that this was indeed a possibility, and external referees were occasionally invited to provide a written evaluation report where necessary. On a question of the Scientific Council’s autonomy from the EC, Professor Bourguignon reiterated that only the Council could choose the panel members and that the Council has never interfered with panel decisions save for one occasion where there was an evident conflict of interest. Panel member identities (except the Chair) are undisclosed until evaluations are over to ensure that there is no abuse of the system.

In response to a question on multi-disciplinary research, Professor Bourguignon remarked that he was not too happy about the lower success rate of multi-disciplinary teams which he suggested could be due to the absence of frontier research across all areas. Finally, Professor Bourguignon stated that the ERC had no part in the Intellectual Property (IP) domain. The ERC‘s only requirement is that the grant holder must have a share of the IP – the level of IP sharing is left to the two parties (Principal Investigator and Host Institution) to decide and negotiate.

For more information on the ERC, its grants and national contact points, please visit the following websites: www.erc.europa.eu and erc.europa.eu/national-contact-points.