European Research Council (ERC) President Maria Leptin took office on 1 November 2021 at an important crossroads. We caught up with Leptin at the 2022 MCAA Annual Conference to discuss the EU’s new seven-year funding programme for research and innovation, frontier research’s role in overcoming global challenges and curiosity.
The crucial transition from Horizon 2020 to the new Horizon Europe has taken place. What challenges do you face?
I think the challenge is always how to convince politicians and citizens of the value of fundamental research, and that costs money. There are many more good applications to the ERC and to other programmes that should and could be funded, and so much more money is needed.
With challenges come opportunities. For example, the ERC budget will see an increase under Horizon Europe. How do you plan to use this very positive development to the ERC’s advantage for funding excellent frontier research?
The Scientific Council decides on how the money is distributed among the calls, and there’s always a strong wish to favour young researchers with Starting Grants [up to EUR 1.5 million for five years]. However, we also have the Synergy Grants [up to EUR 10 million for six years] that are very successful. So, the Scientific Council decides each year on where the money goes. They look at the success rates – there’s a desire to have the success rates amongst all types of calls equal – so one has to do some guessing because the rate depends on the number of applications versus the amount of money. Therefore, they’re trying to get the success rates equal across the calls, at the same time making sure that enough goes to young researchers.
The pandemic has taught Europe that it needs to be more resilient and sustainable to tackle global challenges. One of the ERC’s main aims is to support frontier research. What role will frontier research play in addressing global challenges?
Frontier research does exactly that. It prepares us for things that might come, and we don’t yet know what they are. This is why we need basic research. We’ve heard it again and again. The COVID vaccine was one such case. I’ve seen it also with climate change. We don’t even understand how the world fully works, so how can we try and change the world and respond to challenges like that if we don’t know the basic principles? So, for all of these, we need to know basic principles. A lot of new technologies have come along in the last 5 to 10 years in terms of data handling, simulation and AI for learning. Scientists have access to all this, to use and to understand all this data. Understanding is essential, because if we want to manipulate the world, we need to know how it works. And who knows what challenge we’ll face in five years? We certainly don’t.
You have to remember that we always ask what research is going to do for society, and I think that’s justified because society puts tax money into it, and we need researchers for solutions to a better life.
However, we need to remember that research is also about satisfying curiosity. Everybody is curious. We find it incredibly exciting when a probe lands on a comet very far away. We like to send things out and peer into space. Why? It’s not going to do us any good to look billions of years back. How does it help us to know what a black hole looks like? But we find it really exciting. So, this is true for many other things as well. Let’s take archaeology as an example. We just care about what our ancestors did, and evolution doesn’t help us with anything, but we just want to know. So, that is important to remember. Even though frontier science may help us to do something, to respond to a crisis in the future, it also has a completely different function; it’s a cultural function of satisfying curiosity. That is something I want everybody to remember.
MCAA Editorial Team