Don’t neglect blue-skies research – ERC president

18 Nov 2014

European Research Council president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. Photo by Jean-François DARS

We neglect blue-skies or ‘frontier’ research at our peril, a conference in Dublin heard yesterday.

There was standing room only in the Royal Irish Academy as European Research Council (ERC) president Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon spoke there yesterday, and he had a clear message: that frontier research is key for long-term scientific success and building the next generation of scientists.

During his keynote address at the meeting ‘Excellent Research: Ireland and the European Research Council’, Bourguignon spoke about how such research can lead to game-changing innovations – including internet search giant Google, which is based on an algorithm from a fundamental research project in the US – and how even scientific findings that are initially of interest to a narrow field or are marked down as ‘for the record’ can later go on to have wider applications.

Definition of frontier research

Future Human

The ERC was set up in 2007 with the remit to fund frontier or ‘blue-skies’ research across all fields in Europe. Its website defines the term: “On one hand it denotes that basic research in science and technology is of critical importance to economic and social welfare. And on the other that research at and beyond the frontiers of understanding is an intrinsically risky venture, progressing in new and the most exiting research areas and is characterised by the absence of disciplinary boundaries.”

To date, 34 research projects have been funded by the ERC in Irish host institutions, representing a total budget of €57m, and a further 25 grant holders of Irish nationality are based in institutions outside Ireland.

ERC awardees who took part in yesterday’s conference included Prof Jennifer McElwain at University College Dublin, who is researching atmospheric oxygen as a driver of plant evolution over the past 400m years; Dr David Hoey at the University of Limerick, who is studying bioengineering and osteoporosis-related bone fractures; Dr Paolo Guasoni, who is working on market frictions in mathematical finance at Dublin City University; Dr Marie-Louise Coolahan, who is researching the reception of women’s writing in the early modern period at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Prof Dan Bradley, who explained how ERC funding has supported his research in medical genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

Several other ERC awardees were in attendance, including Prof Emma Teeling, Prof Frederic Dias, Prof Jonathan Coleman, Prof John Nolan and Prof Martin Albrecht.

‘Ireland has its act together’

In Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council support researchers who are applying to the ERC for funding, but the bar for the prestigious grants is set high. Speaking to the media before his keynote, Bourguignon welcomed the fact research funding agencies in Ireland are working with applicants.

“My feeling is that (Ireland) has its act together,” he said.

However, Bourguignon cautioned that Europe cannot solely pick up the tab for frontier research, and that national governments need to step up.

“The ERC cannot act as a substitute for national research funding,” he said, noting that even at €13bn between 2014-2020, the ERC’s budget is too small to take the place of national and regional funding across Europe.

Maintaining momentum in funding frontier research

Bourguignon is also concerned that disruption in funding of frontier research could damage the long-term future of science.

“There was an (economic) crisis, and all governments had tough decisions to make,” he said. “But you cannot forget about the frontier research for too long, otherwise you could discourage a generation from joining, (then) the basis for development is gone and you cannot recover.”

He recognises that Ireland has set research funding priorities recently, but argues that frontier research is an important factor for moving on.

“Ireland has made great strides and has been through some very dark days,” he said. “But I have every confidence that you will emerge even stronger than in the past if you do not neglect the foundations for future sustainable growth.”

More women needed to apply for ERC funding

Eight of the 34 grantees in Ireland are women, and more generally women make up on average one in five of ERC grant award holders. The ratio concerns Bourguignon, and he wants to see a more equitable balance.

“Quite often (the participation of women) is presented as a question of justice, and for me that is also a question, but the main point is to be sure you mobilise all the possible resources,” he said. “We need all the talent … and we cannot forget about half the population of Europe.”

The ERC has been modifying aspects of its application processes to encourage more women to apply, and Bourguignon hopes that over time the increased success of women applicants will encourage even more women to apply for ERC funding.

Data protection issues

During the Q&A after Bourguignon’s keynote, Health Research Board CEO Dr Graham Love raised the issue of impending data protection regulations at European level that could “be incredibly restrictive on the scientific endeavour”.

Responding, Bourguignon voiced his own concerns, pointing out that data protection itself is not the wrong thing to do but that the proposed approach could be a major impediment to research.

“We need to tell (MEPs) how destructive this approach could be,” he said. “And as a whole, the scientific community has to mobilise to show how much damage could be done.”

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication