Ladies and gentlemen.
Good morning and welcome!
Thank you for coming. Today's event is one of the most important in my tenure as a Commissioner for one simple reason: You are our jewel in the crown. You are one of the best things to happen in Europe in the last 10 years.
I would like to thank Professor Bourguignon, and MEP Buzek for their opening remarks. And also for their commitment to the work of the ERC, past and future.
I would also like to thank Minister Vela from Spain, Minister Denkov from Bulgaria, Minister Mandon from France and Minister Valeca from Romania for making the effort to be here today.
It is about this past and future that I want to speak today.
In the past two years at the Commission I have had the privilege of meeting so many of the grantees and to listen to them. And the fact is that somehow they're all different. They are the best in the world but I think that what really amazed me and what differentiates them is not only that they are best. What differentiates them is their being contagious about their passions.
They are great story tellers. They have a way of communicating their project that you do not find anywhere else.
This is an amazing strength for Europe. This is an amazing strength for our collective future.
Harari in his book Sapiens explains why Homo Sapiens was the only human species to survive. Why the Neanderthals disappear. And he says: "The most wandering bands of storytelling sapiens were the most important force the animal kingdom had produced".
ERC storytellers are able to make you passionate about things that you don't fully understand. That's mind blowing. Ben Feringa and Jean Pierre Sauvage tell a story about how theycreated a four-wheel nano-car and how one day these nano-cars would be able to travel into your body and repair cells. You immediately become passionate about it without understanding it. How powerful is that?
This way of storytelling is contagious. This is a unique trait. And that's what makes you so powerful. You should not only be the storytellers of Science, but the storytellers of Europe.
You are what makes the ERC so special.
You are the inspiration of us all.
And you are the reason why the ERC has an obsession about the power of fundamental science in its DNA.
It's that unfailing belief that has made the ERC a major European success. And not just for the European project.
In fact, we can even see the ERC reach beyond planet earth!
Michael Gillon, who some of you may have heard of recently, is a perfect example of the success of the ERC. He is the lead researcher behind the SPECULOOS project and the recent discovery of the seven new planets.
And Michael, a Belgian based out of the University of Liege (those of you who have lived in Belgium will appreciate the name SPECULOOS!) is an ERC grantee. I recently had the chance to talk to him. He has an amazing story. And what he said towards the end of our conversation struck me. He said:
"The European Research Council believed in our intuition"
I think Europe is one of the very few places where you still believe in scientific intuition and the ERC is the real proof of that."
That is what makes the ERC exceptional: its belief in the potential of science.
Its belief in intuition.
Its belief that science is at the intersection of different fields.
The problem with this story is that for several days nobody knew it was a European Scientist with European money behind it. The news was: "NASA discovered 7 earth-like Planets". So we have to be more vocal about our stories. We hesitate too much to tell our stories to the broader public.
We are shy about our science.
I am proud that the European Commission took the bold step in 2005 to propose the establishment of the European Research Council as part of the 7th Framework Programme.
At the time, there was strong opposition to this proposal – including from several Member States. After two years of tough negotiations – and the vocal support of the scientific community – the ERC was finally agreed upon by the European Parliament and the Member States.
The ERC was a success from day one, and has gone from strength to strength ever since. For Horizon 2020, the Commission proposed a doubling of the budget for the ERC. This was – for the most part – achieved. Following the mid-term review of the EU budget, the Commission proposed an increase in funding for Horizon 2020, including for the ERC.
And I am happy to announce today that the Commission plans to increase the budget for the ERC by 50 million euro for the remaining years of Horizon 2020.
In ten short years the ERC has become a powerhouse of science. It is recognised as the best in the world in the way it supports for fundamental research.
But I believe its importance goes beyond science. It shows how the European Union itself can innovate. In ten years the ERC has consistently demonstrated that it is responsive and understanding of what scientists need. And some of the simplifications that the ERC introduced have now been mainstreamed across all parts of Horizon 2020. Such as the use of lump sums for overhead costs.
And as boring as it sounds to give statistics, the numbers for the first ten years are so impressive that I can't pass them up:
- ERC funded projects are responsible for 6 Nobel Prizes, 5 Wolf Prizes and 4 Field Medals.
- And ERC funded projects have resulted in 100,000 articles being published in scientific journals, including over 5,500 in the 1% most cited scientific journals.
That means that for the first time, Europe has surpassed the US in the number of top one percent most cited scientific publications.
So let's be vocal about it. To be European is to be proud of science.
Today I'm excited about hearing the radical stories beyond the statistics. Like Emily Cross who you will hear from this afternoon. She is not only a researcher, but also a dancer. A skill she uses to feed her own research in cognitive neuroscience.
We're also going to hear from Toby Kiers. Toby is an evolutionary biologist that discovered that humans are not the only ones that trade in markets.
Toby discovered market trade between plants and fungi. He is researching ways to alter the terms of this trade. Why? To create "altruistic" fungi that will actually feed plants. Maybe he could benefit from speaking to my colleague, trade Commissioner Malmstroem!
These two stories describe to me what the ERC is about. Both Emily and Toby are passionate about their projects. And comfortable being at the intersection of different fields. They are so good at their disciplines that they are not afraid of going beyond their boundaries.
These are just some of the direct successes of the ERC.
And after ten years we are seeing a number of indirect successes. Ones that we had not planned for.
The strong belief that the Commission and the ERC has in basic science has become contagious. Its model has been recognised as an example of best practice for national funding.
Since the creation of the ERC:
- 8 Member States have set up their own national research councils inspired by the ERC model.
- 11 Member States have launched funding mechanisms based on ERC funding.
So in ten years, the ERC has not only become a beacon of excellence in science. But it has kick-started a domino effect in this belief throughout Europe, and the world.
We're not just here today to talk about the past successes of the ERC. We have another task. We need to talk about where we see it going in the future.
You may know that two weeks ago European Commission President Juncker released the White Paper on the future of Europe. And in it, he took considerable care to point out the challenges we need to overcome.
Science is recognised as a central element of the future of the EU for two reasons:
Because it is the best tool we have to reconnect with people. Science is about creating bridges, about collaboration about understanding others. So we need you in Europe.
Because it is only with science that we can overcome our biggest challenges such as climate change, our ageing population and even security threats.
As a paradigm of excellence, the ERC should also act as a model for the Future of Europe.
While we are number 1 in science, this is not the case for innovation. So this is why I am working so hard to create a European Innovation Council. To create more impact from European innovation support.
If we are successful with an EIC, I believe this will increase even further the success of the ERC. The ERC Proof of Concept scheme has shown that there are many fantastic ideas for innovation that come from the ERC projects. A future EIC should accelerate the application of these ideas. And scale up the successful applications so they have a real impact on people's lives and wellbeing.
So the EIC will be a complement to the ERC, not a competitor.
In the next ten years and beyond we will try to bridge the ERC to a future EIC. If we are to overcome the challenges that President Juncker spoke of, we need to reinforce the link between research and innovation. But with each keeping its own distinct identity.
This is very much in keeping with the three values I have set out for the new Framework Programme: Excellence; Openness: and Impact.
The ERC is already a beacon of excellence. It is at the forefront of open science and open to the world. And it is having tremendous impact in so many different ways.
And I believe the ERC must be a key pillar in an even more ambitious Framework Programme that follows Horizon 2020.
There are things we need to do now to achieve this future I've described. And for me your core is and always will be excellence. But if you want to help us with future of Europe. If you want to keep your focus on excellence. There are three things you should focus: Tell the story, keep united and connect with the people.
First, scientists need to shout about the value and impact of the ERC. I read a great article recently by Professor Herman Goosens. He explained how EU research funding revolutionised countries' policies to tackle antimicrobial resistance.
He said, and I quote: "scientists must shout from the rooftops that many of our problems today can be solved only at a European level."
Please do it. Literally do it.
We are heading into important discussions on the future of the EU. There will be many pressures on the future EU budget.
So we need our scientists to shout loud enough.
Don't take the future for granted.
We need our scientists to tell everyone about how crucial the EU is for science. To explain why ERC funding is so important. And to make the case that it needs to be strengthened.
Second, we must remain united in our vision of an ERC based on scientific excellence. The ERC is unique because it has a purely excellence based approach to science. One which is geographically blind. I will always remember when I gave the 5000th ERC grant to a Croatian Scientist. She told me: the best part of this grant is not that I got it because I'm Croatian, but because I'm the best in my field. And on top of that I can stay and live in my country.
And so we must remain united in defending an open, excellence based vision of science with the ERC as a spearhead. Regardless of how many Member States the EU will have in the coming years.
Finally, I want to see the reputation of the ERC move beyond scientific circles. In the next 10 years we should strive for the ERC to reach the same level of visibility and public awareness as the Nobel Prize.
The ERC should become a household name, not just for scientists, but to all European citizens.
We have to create dreams that make Europeans proud. Science is the best tool for this. If you create those dreams people will follow you and feel proud to be European.
Let me be bold and give you some examples:
- We have to be the first to cure Alzheimers
- We have to be the first to control cancer so people don't die from it.
- We have to be first to go from a linear economy that is destroying the planet to circular economy that will safeguard our future.
We have to connect with people through ambitious goals that create purpose.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You will hear today that in just ten years the ERC has created a shift in scientific research. It has produced a new paradigm in research funding. And it has become one of the best success stories of the European project.
Let's not stop here.
Let's encourage our scientists to tell everyone about the ERC as a success story of Europe. Let's create a brand of scientific excellence known globally by everyone. Let's approach the future of the ERC as a united front. And let's continue to believe in the potential of science.
But above all keep telling your story. As one a scientist from CERN said the story I tell people about why I do what I do is not the real reason I do it. The reason I do it is so deep and complex that no one would understand. The story I tell people is the one that connects me to them. It is real but it is not the whole story.
Keep following your intuition like Michael Gillon.
The American actor and Science communicator Alan Alda once said:
"You have to leave the city of comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition.
What you will discover will be wonderful.
What you will discover is you."