Geographies in Depth

Why curiosity matters

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon
Nicolaas Kuiper Honorary Professor, Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS)
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In the course of my over thirty visits to China in the past three decades, it has been a privilege to interact with Chinese scientists from different institutions. Known as a cradle of learning since ancient times, China is well on the way to becoming a power house for science and technology. Over the past years, I have seen the country make steady progress in this area as a result of massive investments.

It is a great pleasure for me to visit China again, this time on the occasion of the Annual Meeting of the New Champions – also dubbed “Summer Davos” – organised by the World Economic Forum with the support of the Chinese authorities and hosted in Tianjin from 10 to 12 September. I am here to represent the European Research Council (ERC), an organisation that I am proud to lead since January this year. It is the European Union’s first funding body for pioneering research open to individual scientists from anywhere in the world.

The originality of the ERC lies in the bottom-up approach that allows scientific talent to pursue their ambitious projects in frontier research. This type of research is performed by scientists driven by the curiosity to push the boundaries of knowledge and know-how further, without having any specific applications in mind. History shows that without curiosity-driven science, research constrained to solving “real problems” would be kept very routine and technological progress would remain purely incremental.

Although the impact of frontier research is often difficult to predict, it can sometimes deliver the jackpot, purely due to serendipity. This is where the real breakthroughs often happen; the laser, the identification of the DNA structure and penicillin are just a few examples of ground-breaking discoveries that sprang from such research. A huge variety of new materials have also emerged in this way, for instance new ceramics as well as graphene, a new form of carbon considered one of the materials of the future. Such breakthroughs lead to the emergence of new industrial sectors, spur innovation, stimulate the economy, and have the potential of improving society and people’s quality of life.

Both China and Europe have understood the need to help top talent thrive and to encourage more excellent research with the perspective of boosting innovation and competitiveness. To that end, in 2007, the European Union took a bold step by establishing the ERC to invest in the most creative researchers in any field, from Social Sciences and Humanities to Physical Sciences, Engineering and Life Sciences.

Already considered as a success story, the ERC has so far funded over 4,500 scientists on the sole basis of scientific quality. It is part of its mission to help keep Europe competitive by offering attractive funding over a 5-year period. As science is a truly global enterprise, the ERC is eager to stimulate further international scientific collaboration and support global “brain circulation” as its calls are open to researchers from any country. Its grants allow researchers to maintain an affiliation with their country of origin, whilst working in Europe at least half-time. To date, eight Chinese have been awarded ERC grants, worth over 11 million EUR in total. In addition, hundreds of Chinese researchers are working on ERC projects as team members. The ERC wishes to see these numbers increase.

The Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin certainly strikes a chord with the ERC as it focuses on young talent. The ERC gives high priority to young scientists to let them, already at an early career stage, acquire independence in their work and fully develop their potential. Around two-thirds of the ERC’s budget go to up-coming research leaders;

for the period 2014-2020, the overall budget is over 13 billion Euros, giving the possibility of a real impact on giving opportunities to independence to a number of young researchers.

The overall theme of this year’s meeting – “Creating Value through Innovation” – resonates with the ERC’s mission to fund ambitious projects proposed by researchers with an open mind for long-term innovation. This is crucial, as innovation – recognised as a decisive driver of economic growth – is boosted by scientists who have been given the opportunity to carry out high-risk, high-gain research at the frontier of knowledge.

Author: Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council

Image: Scientist Nancy Tang inspects stents before they are used to test how a drug is released inside a human body from an implanted medical device. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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