Professor Bourguignon has flown into Edinburgh to deliver the MacCormick European Lecture for the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Holyrood sits down with the European Research Council (ERC) president ahead of a busy day of engagements. An eminent mathematician, Professor Bourguignon is an expert in differential geometry who now heads up the first pan-European funding body, supporting scientific excellence across the continent with a budget of €13bn.
Does this mean he hasn’t time for his own research? “Officially, my position at the ERC is 80 per cent of my time. My wife says 140 per cent, so… but that’s the way it is. I’m still trying to talk to mathematicians as often as I can, and I’ll meet some here in Edinburgh, along with other scientists, and of course I’m lecturing from time to time.”
Surprisingly, he wasn’t interested in maths at school. “I was quite successful in mathematics, but I was not really interested in it. I was interested in philosophy or literature more initially,” he says. On his journey to Scotland, Bourguignon had bumped into one of his school classmates at the airport. Bernard Cerquiglini had been in Bourguignon’s French class and is now a famous linguist, heading the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, an international association of French-speaking institutions. “We were together in this class, and he was very much defending Rousseau and I was very much defending Voltaire,” Bourguignon remembers, and the boys argued with the teacher because “although we were defending totally opposite views, we both got 18 out of 20 for our paper.”
His passion for mathematics came later, after he moved to a different school for the final part of his baccalaureate. “The teacher was known to be not a very good teacher, but then he was a great mathematician, so all of a sudden I had in front of me somebody clearly saying interesting things but that I couldn’t understand.” Used to getting 20 out of 20 for tests, Bourguignon suddenly found himself marked just half a point out of 20 for his first test. “It was a big shock. What’s happening? So I started to really work seriously on maths, because I wanted to understand what he was saying, so I slowly recovered. Actually, the reputation of this teacher was already established, that he was a tough guy. But he was a great inspirer. I realised afterwards that actually, he made the same thing happen with quite a few mathematicians in France. They were turned on to it by him”.
The big change was learning to think for himself, he says, which “is a big thing in mathematics.” Now the ERC is looking to challenge scientists throughout Europe to be brave and innovative with what Bourguignon calls “frontier research”. The ERC should not be a routine funder, he says. “It should not be business as usual, we are really trying to push people at their boundaries, and that’s very important. You can translate this into excellence, but I tend to translate it into something different: challenge.”
we are really trying to push people at their boundaries
The ERC evaluators themselves are being encouraged to take risks, Bourguignon says, “because you cannot ask people to propose very ambitious things then say, ‘oh well, maybe it’s not sure enough’. Altogether, as you know, the academic community tends to be conservative.” This sense of challenge is characterised by Horizon 2020, the biggest EU research and innovation programme ever with nearly €80bn of funding available over the next seven years, of which the ERC plays a part. Bourguignon calls himself a “great defender” of the programme which is centred around three central pillars: excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges. “I think it’s a pretty good message, even to transmit to countries, because at the moment many governments are just focusing on short-term goals, and saying we don’t have the ‘luxury’ to really think ahead. Money is short. It’s a completely wrong approach,” he argues. With the ERC only providing two per cent of overall funding, countries “have to do their share”.
The UK has a concentration of innovation funding in the south-east, with 25 per cent of research funding going to just five universities. What advice does Bourguignon have for Scotland? “Firstly, the most obvious point is that Scotland is doing pretty well in terms of ERC funding! As you’ll know, the ERC calls are very competitive, so it should be seen I hope from here as proof that Scotland already has fantastic assets, so the key point is to make sure you don’t destroy those,” he says. Scotland has benefitted from 103 ERC grants so far, representing €177m. In terms of relative performance too, Scotland is doing very well, with a success rate of 12.1 per cent, which is one of the best in the EU, level with Belgium. Crucially for Bourguignon, Scotland has been successful at attracting foreign talent, with 39 foreign researchers of 12 different nationalities winning ERC funding in Scotland. “It shows the working conditions must have been pretty good, which probably means the students are excellent, and for a university professor, the quality of students is important,” he says.
Nurturing an ‘eco-system’ where academics and students feel comfortable is key to fostering high-level research, he says. “It has to do with visas, it has to do with many other things. You need a general consensus that this is part of the way you build the strength of a country, by being open, but in the spirit of competition.”
The issue of academic visas came up during the referendum on independence, but Bourguignon says it is an issue for the whole of Europe. “Yesterday evening I spoke with some friends here in Scotland who have some people they know very well in France who are trying to build something and they are blocked by a totally stupid situation with a visa. Maybe I can help, I’m not sure. I think it’s a problem Europe needs to address.”
Like Bourguignon was himself, many Scots are less than enthusiastic about mathematics at school. So much so the country suffers severe skills shortages in science, technology, engineering and maths. Bourguignon says Scotland is not alone, and suggests young people have had a different relationship with science since the atomic bomb and the mainstreaming of technology. “Clearly a great number of things [that] come from scientific research have had a huge impact on society, and of course the decisions to put them to use are not in the hands of scientists. But still, scientists have to take this into consideration, and accept a discussion on these issues as something for which they have a special responsibility,” he says. Ethics is not part of formal technical training, he points out. “Science of course has a very technical side, but also a creative side, but it has also a dimension which has to do with responsibility. Younger generations, I think, are quite sensitive to this. They don’t always express it explicitly, but given the reluctance to get engaged in the scientific profession, we need to consider these dimensions.”