Former European Research Council (ERC) President Jean Pierre Bourguignon received an Honorary Recognition award during the 2022 MCAA Annual Conference. In an in-depth interview, Honorary Prof. Bourguignon has a lot to say about Europe’s main competitors in science, frontier research in tackling global challenges and diversity among the scientific community.
You were the ERC President from 2014 to 2019. How have the scientific and research landscapes changed over the years in terms of challenges and opportunities?
During these years, there was in particular something that was already happening before, but that has really become more evident. It was the remarkable improvement of the investment on research in Asia, and in particular China. If you look at articles written by Chinese scientists in China, they used to represent 1% of the most cited papers. This became 2% in 2000, and 20% in 2020. Clearly China has invested huge amounts of money, not only more money, but also more quality. So this is a reality.
Regarding Europe, this is something you cannot be oblivious to. China is the biggest challenger. During this time, the United States has also decided to invest large amounts of money. Therefore, two of Europe’s main competitors, the Unites States and all of Asia, but in particular China, have really made very significant investments.
I must say I was truly disappointed that at the July 2020 summit there was this big cut – 15% – in the Horizon Europe budget because we were in the middle of the pandemic. Clearly, science and research had been playing a role in developing the vaccines, and at the same time, the challenge coming from the United States, Asia and all the other big players had significantly increased.
What has changed is the fact that Europe’s other clear competitors have really taken significant steps forward. At the same time, all key stakeholders in Europe stated that the minimum amount for the Horizon Europe budget should be EUR 120 billion. Others claimed the minimum should be 150, but 120 would be sufficient. We finally settled on 95.5, which is very far from 120. This is one thing you would have hoped changed over that period, given the evidence of the importance of research during the pandemic.
Another change which is quite different and something I find in a sense challenging, is the fact that now many EU countries have identified that there are really fundamental transitions to be made for climate change, digitalisation and health. For all of them, it is clear that the solution will be coming from research and technology. Although this is acknowledged, you don’t see it translated. So, even though at a political level people have finally accepted that these transitions were essential, and you couldn’t ignore them, the fact that they are completely backed by more research or more technology has not been acknowledged and recognised. In a way, we would have thought that we would be in a better position, but actually that has not materialised. It shows that scientists altogether have to make major progress in the way they interact with society at large, and in particular with politicians. For the moment, people keep saying this, but I don’t see any concrete development. People recognised the necessity, but what do we do? What are the steps to be taken? How can we achieve that? Recognising that these transitions have to happen should put us in a much better position to defend investment in research.
You were also Interim President for one year from 2020 until 2021, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic shone a light on the fact that bottom-up frontier research is key to preparing us for the next major crisis. How will frontier research achieve this?
I am a researcher, a mathematician. Why do I do research? Typically, the basis of research is that you want to understand how the world functions, how things happen, what is behind the phenomena that you see. So, in the case of, for example, mRNA vaccines, what was necessary before you arrive at a vaccine was to actually understand the role of mRNA and how you can transfer mRNA from one place to the other without destroying it along the way. This was the challenge because in a sense people knew what mRNA was, but if you want to use it as a means to induce a reaction, you need to bring it to the right place. That was the difficult part, and to do that you had to understand some very basic phenomena, and this was achieved over a long period of time. At that time, some people actually thought that it could become a new vaccination method, but nobody was sure of that because it was a really open-ended thing. The fundamental aspect of that research was to understand the process. That is a typical situation.
A very interesting example is the case of Ugur Sahin who received an ERC grant not to deal with the pandemic, but with specific forms of cancer. The advantage of mRNA for specific kinds of cancer was precisely this flexibility, which was very important. Therefore, he got the grant to work on this type of vaccination. But of course, the fact that for some people working in this area the flexibility of this vaccine was already available made him convince the BioNTech board to decide to look into whether they could develop a vaccine for the COVID infection. This happened on 20 January. For the company, which was not very big, this meant that they had to decide to start something completely new because they had access to the COVID sequence and wanted to see whether they could do something. Then they started their activities and needed to carry out tests very quickly. This meant that they needed to gather new advance money – they didn’t have a lot of money available – and as soon as it became clear that [the outcome] could actually be efficient, they had to look for an industrial partner. An obvious industrial partner – I can’t give you the name – is a company with which they had collaborated for a number of years. This company finally said, "No, it’s too risky, we don’t want to do it," and that’s how they ended up with Pfizer.
People very often say that these companies [developing vaccines] wanted to make money, but that was not the case. It was not clear whether it would work. It was a really big gamble. This shows that you have to develop new fronts for access to completely new approaches to a number of things. You can always improve what you have. Some people thought that this would work, but you need to explore some entirely new avenues, and this is a long-term effort. What is really remarkable is that Ugur Sahin and people working with him, particularly his wife, have really managed this. From the very beginning, not only did he need new scientific knowledge, but also needed to develop the technology to transform this new scientific knowledge into something that could become an action, which is a remarkable vision.
How could the MCAA contribute to the Commission’s plan to revitalise the European Research Area?
As you know, research is really done by people, so it is extremely important that all people, such as MSCA Fellows, really are a very high-quality group. They have already been selected, come from many different disciplinary and national backgrounds, some of them even professional backgrounds. Many feel that their time as MSCA Fellows is time well spent: they get good support and access. It is very interesting that there is this network that exists and functions, and they can bring up a diversity of opinions, a diversity of situations. One of the Commission’s greatest difficulties has always been to accept this diversity. Diversity is something that bureaucrats don’t like because they like to have a one-size-fits-all solution. Unfortunately, in many cases this just doesn’t work because you have to accept diversity. If you have a network with sufficient influence, like the MCAA network, then you are able to put on the table that what you are proposing is too simplistic. The Association, if it functions well – that is if it really gathers a very significant group of fellows and also a very diverse cross-section of fellows – can bring exactly what is needed. The EU wants to simplify, it wants to harmonise all the time. Bureaucrats around the world are always doing that; they just want to see one head, but the MCAA has many heads, which reminds them that it is more complicated because you have to deal with several cases, and what you are proposing is not going to do the job. You need more diversity.
Another thing I observe about the fellows is that I don’t see the world of researchers as a world that is detached from the outside. I really like the fact that among the MSCA Fellows, there is a number who don’t stay in academia or in research. They go to companies or they establish their own. In a sense, it is interesting that if you look at the dynamic of the process, people at some point spend a significant amount of their time doing science, doing research, being in academia or sometimes in industry with the support of an MSCA grant. But there are also people who are involved in other domains. Having these people with this experience in the other domains is interesting because they can also report to the Commission. If you are serious about stimulating the presence of researchers in industry, for example, you have to be aware that there are some cultural shocks that people don’t accept. For me, there is the size, the diversity, the diversity of dynamics, and as long as we have not succeeded in viewing research training as a normal situation for so many people in industry too, we are not going to win. If research is just confined to academia, it is not going to work. You need to have porosity between the two domains. The fact that there are so many people among the fellows who have moved from here to there gives you a good chance of getting a feeling if there are obstacles, detecting the obstacles, and then trying to make them disappear.
MCAA Editorial Team