Every year, the ERC awards around 1,000 grants with a combined budget for this year of around 1.8 billion Euros. But now uncertainty looms in the wake of events in the US and UK. (Photo: Shutterstock)

European Research Council turns ten: After success comes uncertainty

After ten successful years, the European Research Council is facing uncertainty over future funding, while comments by Donald Trump and events in Europe are adding additional stress.

Perhaps you have never heard of the European Research Council (ERC) before? But if you are interested in science, then you should read on, because the ERC is one of the main sources of funding for research throughout Europe, including the Nordic countries.

Every year, the ERC awards around 1,000 grants with a combined budget for this year of around 1.8 billion Euros.

See how some of these have contributed to Nordic science in the graphs below.

An ERC-grant is not just about money. They are aimed at ambitious scientists and open doors to further funding opportunities. They allow scientists to think big and are an important source of funding for basic research throughout Europe.

But the question now, is what does the future hold for the ERC? This week, the ERC celebrates its tenth birthday. But among the celebrations, they are also facing some uncertainty for the future.

In an interview with ScienceNordic, ERC President, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon shares what he believes to be the main uncertainties that will define the ERC’s activities over the next year.

Among the issues raised are: how much money will the ERC have? How much will ERC activities depend on EU guidelines? And how future ERC funds might be affected by Brexit and the results of upcoming European elections?

How will Brexit and the "post-truth" society impact scientific funding?

Bourguignon is sure that much of this uncertainty will be put to rest in the next year, as they establish the next ERC framework. For example, issues around how much money they will have at their disposal and how many years funding they will receive, be that five, seven, or ten yeas, should be soon be established.

But a more serious uncertainty stems from the effects of Britain leaving the EU, which will leave a hole in the EU budget and could impact research funding, including the ERC.

Another problem comes from the signals sent by numerous politicians in both the USA and Europe. Bourguignon has taken note of an increasing “lack of respect for facts” in the US and Donald Trump’s travel ban that has direct consequences for the research community in preventing scientists from travelling and collaborating.

“I hope we’ll move away from this atmosphere, because it’s so critical for us scientists to act as a global community,” says Bourguignon.

But there are also similar trends occurring on this side of the Atlantic. Bourguignon cites examples of both the debate in the lead up to the British EU referendum and political debate in his own country, France, where the election campaign is currently underway. But the question is, how will these events effect politician’s willingness to invest in research?

According to Bourguignon, scientists themselves should contribute to this debate by showing how important their work is. They must adjust to a new reality and shout out when they possess knowledge that goes against what politicians say, he says.

“It’s hard for scientists as we enter this time of post-truth. We have to tell people that running the world by refusing to consider the facts is unacceptable,” says Bourguignon.

Is science at risk of becoming too political?

“Yes, but there are basic rules of democracy and debate should be based on facts. Right now, scientists need to become more outspoken.”

“I hope there’ll be initiatives in this direction, also at the European level,” he says.

When it comes to presenting facts to the world, scientists need to stand together. And according to Bourguignon, it will become increasingly important that skilled scientists from a range of different fields join forces.

“Interdisciplinary science will become increasingly critical, and so the ERC Scientific Council has decided to re-launch the so-called Synergy Grants, where up to four researchers can come together from different fields to find solutions to the very challenging scientific problems,” he says,

Bourguignon hopes that the ERC’s budget can defy the odds and grow enough so that the ERC can support even more promising projects than ever before. It’s important that the ERC maintains its independent “framework,” and continues to foster research from the bottom-up, with the ideas coming from the researchers themselves and not from the politicians, he says.

“The only criterion for selecting a project [for funding] is scientific quality,” says Bourguignon.

“Sometimes it can take 20 years before a [scientific] result can be put to use, but this is how science comes to completely change our view of the world. Luckily, people are becoming aware of this, and this is one of the reasons why the ERC has been a success,” he says.

Read more in the Danish version of this article on Videnskab.dk

Translated by: Catherine Jex

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