Interview with Prof. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

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Tags: Meet the researchers

- Professor Bourguignon, you became the ERC president at the beginning of the year. Is this your first trip to Japan in your new capacity? What is the purposeof your visit this time?

Although I have visited Japan more than 30 times during my career, this is my first trip since I became the ERC president. This trip has four purposes: to present the ERC’s activities and grant schemes to the Council for Science, Technology and Innoavtion (CSTI) of the Japanse Prime Minister’s cabinet, which is interested in learning more about how Europe funds and encourages fundamental research; to participate in an OECD forum on the Knowledge Economy, as well as to take part both in the STS (Science and Technology in Society forum) in Kyoto, and in a meeting on “Science 2.0” organised by the EU Delegation office in Japan. This is the dense programme for these four days.

- ERC is the European funding organisation providing the biggest amount of funding for bottom-up research projects. Could you tell us about the ERC’s relationship with Japan among other non-European research partners?

After several visits to Japan by people in charge of the ERC in the recent past, this is the chance to develop relations with Japan at an institutional level, which is actually the fifth reason for my visit here. Meeting with Dr Yuichiro Anzai, the JSPS president (who I already know from past interactions with him at Keio University and at JSPS, and who I lately also met in Tianjin, China, at the Summer Davos) is an opportunity to try and set up a cooperation agreement, similar to what the ERC already has with the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Korean National Research Foundation (NRF). The purpose of such an agreement would be to allow young Japanese researchers to join an ERC team in Europe for a shorter period of time (three to twelve months). This would give them the opportunity to gain international experience in a selective environment.

- Japan is also a country of excellence in R&D. Nonetheless, so far there are only 14 Japanese nationals who have been awarded ERC grants (13 Starting Grants, one Advanced Grant). This is a small proportion of the 4500 or so grantees, and only half as many as Canada, Russia or Australia. Why is that?

For researchers it can be difficult to spend extensive periods of time abroad because some believe, sometimes rightly so, that they will not be able to find a suitable position back home if they spend too much time away from their country.

We also have to keep in mind that Japan is one of the countries spending the highest proportion of its GDP (more than 3.5%) on R&D, which enables most researchers to find significant amounts of funds at a national level.

For an ERC grantee, one of the obligations is to spend at least 50% of the time in Europe, whilst having the possibility of keeping an affilation or position in the home country. But this is not always accepted by Japanese universities, which leaves no other choice for potentially successful Japanese ERC candidates but to spend 100% of their time in Europe.

14 Japanese ERC grantees is already quite a substantial number, from my point of view. You also need to look at the number of Japanese researchers working in the teams led by ERC grantees: there are some 200 so far, according to rough estimates. Although a rather low figure compared to the many hundreds of Chinese researchers in ERC projects, this is already quite significant. Some of these young team members could possibly be interested in becoming ERC grantees in due course after having witnessed the high degree of freedom given to ERC grantees. Being part of one of these teams is an excellent training for them and may inspire them to apply.

- What should or could be done in the future to increase the number of Japanese scientists working in ERC projects? And the number of ERC grantees?

When this agreement with JSPS is put in place, we hope to raise the number of Japanese researchers involved in ERC projects even more. The agreement between the ERC and Korea proved to be attractive, with more than 400 ERC grantees expressing their interest in hosting Korean researchers. Over 30 Korean researchers are coming to Europe for the first year of the programme, and hopefully this number wil increase substantially in the years to come. We hope to see the same success in Japan, which is not unlikely, given the quality and quantity of high-level cooperations already existing between Japan and many European countries in research.

If the agreement can raise awareness about the ERC in Japan and attract more Japanese researchers, we may also see more Japanese ERC grantees in the future.

- What are the challenges ahead for the ERC in the coming years and where do you see the institution going under your presidency?

The ERC funding schemes are very successful and the ERC has gained wide international recognition in just seven years, a remarkable achievement. There is no need to change much at this time, although a longer perspective must be taken.

Under the EU's framework programme scheme, the ERC budget is fixed for seven years, a fantastic advantage considering that many research funding agencies around the world are presently struggling to anticipate what their budget will be for the next year and to keep its level! The priority the ERC gives to supporting young scientists (2/3 of our budget) is here to stay.

Diversity between different disciplines is something we will definitely try to take into even greater account the. The whole spirit of the ERC is to be in line with researchers’ needs, in a completely bottom-up way.

I am, of course, very pleased to hear that the support for fundamental research and excellence is one of the priorities for the European Research and Innovation Commissioner designate Moedas, who's due to take office shortly.

- What skills does a successful ERC grantee have?

The ERC is funding researchers who put forward new, very ambitious projects – projects which are both high risk and high gain. We are not interested in research that is only "more of the same". We look for ground-breaking ideas at the frontiers of knowledge. This also applies to ERC grantees who apply for another grant after a prior success application. They are, of course, welcome to apply, but the ERC is not some sort of “closed club” where you can expect to stay once admitted.

The ERC’s strategy is very clear and straight-forward. I am convinced that this is one of the reasons for its success. And, it is in line with what the scientific community wanted and needed! The Scientific Council makes all possible efforts to assemble highly competent scientists in the panels doing the selection, who are willing to discuss openly with colleagues of the same high level. One must keep in mind that the ERC selection by peer review is very tough, with an average success rate of around 10%. This ensures the excellent quality of ERC grantees. Overall, the ERC is praised for the fairness of its financing. The brilliant minds who get grants really deserve the support the ERC provide them with to develop their vision, and to try and achieve their scientific dreams.

- You were made Doctor Honoris Causa by Keio University in 2008. Could you tell us more about your relationship with this university?

It comes from my relationship with the Japanese mathematician Yoshiaki Maeda, from Keio University, with whom I never published, but had numerous discussions and met on a number of occasions in France and in Japan. With his help (and that of other famous mathematicians such as the Fields Medal awardee Heisuke Hironaka and people from the business sector), a special France-Japan fund to support visits by Japanese mathematicians and theoretical physicists at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS) in Bures-sur-Yvette, France (“Fonds Japon” at IHÉS) has been put in place when I was the director of IHÉS.

I believe I was the first mathematician to be awarded this title at Keio. It was of course a great honour for me.

- Given your extensive experience, could you share with our readers your opinion on the recent push for internationalisation in Japan, particularly in the domains of education and research?

In the world of industry, most of the world-class Japanese groups have long had an international perspective and are now used to seeing themselves at a global level, even when it comes to R&D.

At the institutional, or governmental level, this push for internationalisation with such an intensity, is more recent. Even though the need to open up to the world is well understood in higher circles and funds are available, it is still difficult to transfer this mentality and the interest to researchers and educators, partly because Japan is such a well organised country.

- Finally, could you tell us more about your personal views on working in Japan and with Japanese researchers?

Japan is a country that grants high importance to its values and codes with a permanent endevour for perfection. Having myself spent time in Japan twice as a JSPS fellow (three months in Osaka in 1979, and one and a half months in Sendai in 1993), I was struck by the rigidity that can accompany an extremely well thought out repartition of roles in the day-to-day work.

However, both the country and its people have a strong sense of cohesion and therefore attach great importance to friendship and solidarity, as we have seen in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

These notions are also valid for the relations between foreign researchers and Japanese research groups: the bonds that are created during a research stay in Japan are strong and will persist over time, which is extremely useful both at a professional and personal level.

For these reasons, and also in order to better understand the rich, profound and very specific Japanese culture, I would say that working in Japan, even for a short stay, is a rewarding experience for any researcher, including, of course, the intrinsic quality of the research performed in the country.

Professor Bourguignon, thank you very much for your time!