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José Manuel Fernández de Labastida: "I would tell researchers to take a risk, to apply innovative ideas¿"

José Manuel Fernández de Labastida is the head of the Scientific Management Department of the European Research Council (ERC).

José Manuel Fernández de Labastida is the head of the Scientific Management Department of the European Research Council (ERC).

"There is no wonder ERC has created a great product for the researchers and that is why it attracts many of the best worldwide. e per als investigadors, i per això n’atreu molts, dels millors del món."

"There is no wonder ERC has created a great product for the researchers and that is why it attracts many of the best worldwide. e per als investigadors, i per això n’atreu molts, dels millors del món."

José Manuel Fernández de Labastida Fernández Labastida attended the ceremony for the recognition of the work carried out by the researchers of the University of Barcelona who were awarded by the ERC..

José Manuel Fernández de Labastida Fernández Labastida attended the ceremony for the recognition of the work carried out by the researchers of the University of Barcelona who were awarded by the ERC..

12/09/2017

Entrevistes

José Manuel Fernández de Labastida is the head of the Scientific Management Department of the European Research Council (ERC), he comes from the field of theoretical physics and who developed great part of his research career in CERN. In the field of management, he was the Vice-President of Scientific and Technical Research in CSIC (2001-2004) and Director-General of Research and Management of the National Plan R&D of the Ministry of Science and Innovation (2009-2011), among other positions.

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the ERC grants -held this year, Fernández Labastida attended the ceremony for the recognition of the work carried out by the researchers of the University of Barcelona who were awarded by the ERC. The event took place on June 23 in the Historical Building.  

After ten years of the ERC, indicators guarantee the success of this program. Is there any indicator that makes ERC stand out in particular compared to other European funding programs?

The most significant success indicators of an organization that funds research are those linked to the quality of the funded research. A recent report by Clarivate Analytics shows that in these ten years of ERC’s existence (2007-2016) the values of the indicators of the research quality that has been funded are the highest at a global scale. This is a great success because even though ERC has a short existence it has not only obtained one of the best positions worldwide but it got to the first position of this ranking.

The used indicators are the ratio of normalized citation impact, the percentage of article within the 1% of the most cited ones and the percentage of articles with international collaboration. In all of these indicators, ERC holds the first position in the ranking and in the first two it is far from the second. I doubt that ERC founders could have imagined they would reach these results in ten years. In some way, the most optimistic expectations were far exceeded. These are huge good news for the research in Europe, which the European scientific community should be proud of.


The new Framework Program of the EU (FP9) is currently being “designed”, do you think that in the future, the ERC program will continue the same or will there be changes?

The Scientific Council of ERC started debating on the future of ERC in the next Framework Program and its conclusions so far were published in the website of the ERC.

There are three master guidelines in this report. The first is continuity. The achieved success during these first years requires maintaining continuity in the basic aspects of the ERC. This does not mean we are going for immobility but starting from a well-established base the necessary developments should be introduced so as to face new challenges. This is framed within the second master guideline, agility, which considers the need of having freedom to adapt to new challenges that might come up continuously. The third line shows the importance of a budget increase to deal with some of the needs the ERC is currently unable to respond to, such as the funding of projects evaluated as excellent that cannot be funded due a lack of resources or the right funding for new initiatives such as the Synergy Grants program, which was modestly launched after the publication of the Work Program 2018.  

In this sense the League of European Research Universities, in which the UB takes part, submitted a report with recommendations for the new program in June. In particular, it supports ERC and asks for a raise in its donation, and among the proposals it asks for a new way to evaluate interdisciplinary projects. Do you think a new proposal is necessary in this sense?

The report by the LERU recommends a raise in the ERC budget. It also identifies the funding for interdisciplinary research as an element that needs more attention. We are in absolute agreement regarding the former. Regarding the second one, we are totally aligned with the LERU but I would like to add some things. The ERC has funded a lot of interdisciplinary research. We have stated this from the beginning but there has been an independent ratification recently. ERC makes an ex-post peer evaluation of the finished projects, and one of the questions we make to the assessors is whether they see the research in the project as interdisciplinary. Around 70% of the projects get an affirmative answer. Of course there are different degrees of interdisciplinary and what we see is that, generally, we are mostly funding a close interdisciplinarity, that is, among fields that belong to a common discipline.

In the ERC we want to fund research with distant interdisciplinarity and therefore we launched the program Synergy Grants which I mentioned before. Between two and four main researchers can take part in this program proposing a frontier research project of a maximum length of six years. The funding of the project can get to 14 million euros and there are no priorities when it comes to topics. We expect this program to attract ambitious interdisciplinary projects and therefore it can complement the funding of the already consolidated Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants and Advanced Grants. The Synergy Grants program worked in 2012 in 2013 as a pilot program and after its evaluation the conclusion was that it should be launched with some improvements, which is what we have done now.


Researchers value these calls positively both for the funding and for the length of the project, but mostly for the freedom given to the researcher to work on the project, without a lot of management. Do you think this model would be comparable to other more controlling and final calls?


There is no wonder ERC has created a great product for the researchers and that is why it attracts many of the best worldwide. The level of funding and length of the project are important but so is the flexibility of the researcher to carry it out. The main researcher’s responsibilities have been minimized –those related to the information s/he has to provide on the project, reducing bureaucratic work. For instance, regarding the scientific aspects of the work carried out by the main researcher s/he only has to send a report after reaching half of the length of the project, and another at the end of the project. These reports provide information about the results related to the project such as publications, patents, participations in conferences, etc. and the researcher summarizes his/her work. These reports have a limited length and a simple structure. Apart from the simplification of the activity reports, ERC has a good help service for the researchers to solve any doubt that might come up during the project.

An important objective for the ERC is to guarantee the satisfaction of the main researchers and the institutions both during the process of evaluation and during the time of the project.

Which are the main “effects” in the research career of those who got an ERC, according to you?

The effects on these research careers are very positive in general. We do not have systematic data on this (although we are undergoing a study on this topic which we expect to finish in some months) but we talk with many of the main researchers and generally the information we get is that obtaining an ERC grant constitutes a before and after in their careers, especially for the youngest ones. ERC programs are very competitive (the average success ratio is 12%) and therefore obtaining one of the projects shows they outstood among very qualified competitors. Thus, it is clear why institutions see high quality in these researchers and see them as good candidates to fill a position in research. This creates opportunities for the ERC-funded researchers who do not have other researchers.


What recommendations would you give to a researcher who is thinking about applying for an ERC grant?

I would recommend to think about the research project, which probably has been in their mind for a long time but looked too ambitious to work on it with the common funding means and they never sat down to write and shape it. ERC funding allows researchers to work on projects that can hardly be taken by other means and therefore this is an opportunity to submit a project in the knowledge frontier to break all established standards. I would tell them to take a risk, to use innovative ideas and work on a project saying why the scientific impact can be extraordinary of they reach the objectives behind their ideas.

How would you value the social impact of research carried out in ERC over these ten years?

In general, researcher funded by the ERC will make an impact on society on the mid and long run. This does not mean there won’t be situations in which this impact comes before. Some years ago ERC created a program to go with the programs of Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants and Advanced Grants to encourage researchers asking themselves whether their ideas or results can have an impact in society on the short run. This program, called Proof of Concept, in which only researchers with another ERC project can participate, provides the researcher with additional funding so as to study the potential in the framework of the innovation the results or ideas of their projects could have. This program has been very successful and approximately a 20% of main researchers apply for it. The first steps to commercialization processes or products resulting from the research that was funded by the ERC have been carried out thanks to this program.

Another element that enables determining the impact of ERC funded research on society is provided by the ex-post evaluation, which ERC does systematically. One of the answers we make to the evaluators is whether the completed project had an impact on society or economy. According to the evaluators, in 40% of the projects that impact has been materialized to a greater or a lesser extent during the project or shortly afterwards. A greater result of what we could expect from a program without theme priorities, in which the proposed research is carried out by the researchers, guided by the will of progressing in knowledge. Experts that take part in the ex-post evaluation also answer a question about this impact but about the future, and in this case the percentage of affirmative answers goes up to the 60%.

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