Brussels, 17 Jul 2006
In October 2002, a conference in Copenhagen posed the question, 'Do we need a European Research Council?' The answer from researchers across the EU was a resounding YES, and now, less than four years later, the dream is on the cusp of becoming a reality.
Speaking to a packed conference room at the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF2006) in the southern German city of Munich, the 'movers and shakers' of the ERC outlined their progress towards setting up this eagerly awaited body, and expressed their hopes for the future.
Fotis Kafatos and Helga Nowotny are Chair and Vice-Chair respectively of the Scientific Council, the body set up to design and implement the scientific strategy of the ERC. Both are eminently qualified to carry out the requirements of their posts; their CVs are impressive by anyone's standards, each having worked at prestigious universities and institutes across the EU and elsewhere. Professor Kafatos is a former Director-General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, and until recently Professor Nowotny was Head of the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB). They were also active in the cross-disciplinary movement of scientists that lobbied politicians to increase funding for basic research and which ultimately lead to the creation of the ERC.
However, when speaking to them, what comes across most is their sheer enthusiasm for the ERC project; their eyes shine as they talk about their hopes for the ERC's future. When one makes a particularly important point, the other invariably nods his or her head sharply in agreement.
Professor Kafatos kicked off the session by explaining the 'few and clear' principles underlying the ERC Strategy, which was launched earlier this year. The first principle is 'trust the young'; in its first year, the ERC will focus exclusively on providing support to young researchers who want to establish their own research group in Europe. As Professor Nowotny pointed out later on, the opportunity to become independent early in their careers is one of the factors attracting European scientists to the USA. The second principle is 'trust the individual'; while collaboration is key throughout the rest of the Framework Programme, under the ERC individual teams will be able to apply for funding. The last principle is 'keep it simple'. EU-based researchers from all fields, including the social sciences and the humanities, will be eligible for the ERC grants. The sole criterion is excellence.
Professor Nowotny then underlined the importance of funding projects which are truly engaged in frontier research, exploring the boundary between the known and the unknown. 'Frontier research cannot be planned and it is unpredictable,' she said. 'You can say something useful will come out of it, but you cannot say when or how.' Even if a result appears negative, it is still useful. 'If you fall off a cliff, at least the rest of the EU will know the cliff is there and avoid it,' she pointed out.
In the longer term, she sees a role for the ERC in catalysing a move to greater interdisciplinary research in Europe. 'Disciplines are a creation of the 19th century,' she noted, before pointing out that now researchers are again starting to rediscover the benefits of collaborating with colleagues from different backgrounds. 'We are discovering that the same phenomenon can be looked at from different perspectives, including different disciplinary perspectives, and this makes it very exciting,' she explained. 'So we are moving from a more disciplinary, fragmented way of doing science to something where you have a larger overview, and you get a major leap forward in understanding phenomena.'
The Scientific Council is trying to facilitate this process through its multidisciplinary Evaluation Panels - the groups which will decide who gets the money. There will be 20 panels in total, each made up of 10 to 12 people from a broad range of backgrounds.
Last month the European Parliament voted to carry out a review of the ERC in 2008, with a view to changing its structure to make it more independent. The vote came as a disappointment to EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, who had argued strongly for a later review. Talking to CORDIS News after the session, Professors Nowotny and Kafatos expressed their opinions on the vote. 'I don't think it can be the kind of evaluation that we all would like to see, which can only come once you have a certain output to show and once the processes have matured enough so that you can see what are the possible options,' commented Professor Nowotny. 'If Parliament wants that then we will say what we have done in the last one-and-a-half to two years, but it cannot be a real evaluation of the kind that we all want and need, which should come really in the year 2010,' she added.
Professor Kafatos was equally vociferous. 'We will certainly be going to Parliament every year to give a detailed report. If there are any problems we will be speaking them loud and clear and asking for changes, but until you have evidence it is a waste of time to be talking about a review, especially a review with a predetermined solution,' he said. 'It would really be very damaging to what we are trying to do to predetermine what the outcome will be, or to have a premature evaluation which will not be able to evaluate because the facts will not be there.'
The objective of the ERC is to fund basic research, which is inherently risky as results are not guaranteed. Are Kafatos and Nowotny concerned that some politicians may expect results all the time? 'I think we have to continue to explain what basic research is, and why we need it, both to politicians and the public,' responded Professor Nowotny.
'The political leadership have come to understand that the Lisbon process is not just about taking results that have already been achieved and finding a way to give them to industry, but is about knowledge generation,' added Professor Kafatos. He noted that in the life sciences alone, advances in molecular biology, genetic engineering, cloning and the sequencing of DNA had all come about as part of basic research, and at the time, no-one was thinking about the potential benefits of the research. Then HIV arrived on the scene. Professor Kafatos explained that without the tools of molecular biology, doctors would not have been able to use the blood banks, because they quickly became contaminated. Thanks to basic research, the doctors were able to identify the presence of the virus.
The Council is also busy choosing a Secretary General to oversee the day-to-day running of the ERC. The closing date was at the end of May, and of the around 20 applications and nominations received, four candidates have been shortlisted for interview. The appointment will probably be announced by mid-September.
And while the first round of grants is destined exclusively for young researchers, more experienced scientists will be pleased to hear that a grant for established investigators is foreseen for the following year. However, Professor Nowotny underlined the competitive nature of the grants, saying that due to the small amount of money in the pot, there would only be a small number of grants which would be available only to the very best.
At the end of the session, many attendees rushed to the front of the room to speak to Professors Kafatos and Nowotny; some had specific questions or comments, others just wanted to congratulate them on their work so far and wish them the best of luck for the future. Helga Nowotny explained to CORDIS News that this reaction was quite normal, and said she welcomed feedback, particularly from younger researchers. 'I encourage them to look at our website and write to us, because there may be situations that a young person experiences that raises questions that we have not thought of.'
Professor Kafatos said that the aim of the ERC was to foster research that pushes back the frontier of the unknown, and that the outcome of the ERC should be that the frontier will be vastly beyond where it is now. Under the guidance of its strongly committed Science Council, it should certainly achieve its goals.