Interview & Opinion

Move with Persistance

Helga Nowotny
Source: FWF/Marc Seumenicht

FWF: A storybook career in science, a storybook career in science policy, crowned most visibly by your position as President of the ERC. Looking back, what is your assessment? What where the achievements and where do you see room for improvement?

Helga Nowotny: The development of the ERC is ongoing. The beginning was a pioneering phase where new ground was broken by the Commission in the sense that there was a radical change in the importance attributed to basic research at the European level. Before the ERC, basic research was a matter limited to the EU member states. In 2007, by providing 7.4 billion Euros and establishing a new institution, the European Commission for the first time facilitated a pan-European competition for research funding. It was also a very unusual move to leave the strategic decisions to 22 hand-picked scientists. As we were able to do our work with great independence and the Commission never tried to interfere, the ERC truly bears the stamp of science.

At the outset there was a genuine “clash of cultures” between the Commission on the one hand, and science on the other. The culture of control meets the culture of trust. There were several more or less dramatic disputes, but eventually we succeeded in reaching agreement: the dual governance structure with the Scientific

We are looking for the best of the best – scientific excellence is the sole criterion!

Helga Nowotny

Council and the Executive Agency can function only if both work towards the same goal. Today, the climate is good. The Executive Agency works very professionally and the problems of the pioneering phase have been overcome. We were clear about one thing right from the start: we can only fulfil the claim for scientific excellence if we enjoy credibility among the scientific community. We had to establish mechanisms that ensured our message would come across with absolute certainty: “We are looking for the best of the best – scientific excellence is the sole criterion!” It was necessary for the panels to convincingly live this open and quality-driven culture right from the start. Deciding on the composition of the panels was our main task in the beginning, and it actually is a task that will never be completed. We have focused on this duty with great persistence.

FWF: So, in your own words, one could call it a victory “of perseverance”?

Nowotny: Perseverance is required. Absolutely. Most importantly, never take ‘no’ for an answer. Let me share a little story to illustrate this point: we obviously wanted to do interviews for the starting grants, since when you are dealing with young researchers their publication list on its own is often not indicative enough. A short time before the scheduled date of the interviews we received the answer from the Commission: “Unfortunately this cannot be done; it is legally impossible.” Lucky for us, Portugal took on the presidency of the Council in July 2007; as Scientific Council we always travelled to the country that held the presidency in order to meet the scientific community there. In that particular case the President of the Commission, Barroso, was also in Lisbon at the same time. My predecessor Fotis Kafatos and I had a meeting with Barroso, who listened to us and told his officials: “Solve the problem!”

FWF: Laying down the law, was he?

Nowotny: Yes. He didn’t care about the details but he understood: this is a new institution, and if they have problems at the very beginning it is not a good sign. Later we discovered what the problem was: you can only invite someone to Brussels and pay their travel expenses if that person is invited as an expert. And people who are invited to interviews cannot possibly be called experts, of course. So that was the true reason, and the solution was very simple. It took only an amendment that established a derogation rule for the ERC. This kind of perseverance was often necessary and it involved incessantly arguing your case, never giving up and thinking carefully about how to make progress. At no point in time was malicious intent involved. The officials in Brussels were simply handling things the way they had always handled them.

FWF: And what about room for improvement?

Nowotny: I consider working on the aspects that need improvement as a continuous process. In February, a lovely event was held on the occasion of my retirement which was simultaneously the handing-over and welcome ceremony for my successor. So there is continuity, symbolically and in substance. There are problems that we have deliberately set aside so far which my successor now needs to tackle. This includes, for instance, intensifying relations with the national institutions in support of research. Where are commonalities, complementarity and, perhaps, synergies to be found? There are also elections to the EU Parliament, and relationships will have to be established and pursued with the new parliament, as we have done in the past.

Another unsolved problem is the discrepancy between the new member states and the old “Core Europe”. We were all surprised that a large country such as Poland with a very fine tradition in physics, engineering, mathematics etcetera was simply not represented at the ERC. We went to Poland, were received by the

We cannot do anything from the outside; it has to be done in the country itself.

Helga Nowotny

President, visited the Academy of Sciences and met representatives of the scientific community who shared their problems. One of the findings: the salaries were simply ludicrous. It was all the more surprising that Poland announced they were going to establish a research support facility in Poland modelled on the ERC in order to bring the Polish scientific community up to European level. The beginning has been made in Poland. We were not directly involved except by being there, listening and giving encouragement. And by asking persistently: where is your young generation of scientists? What are you going to do for them to prevent them from leaving the country?

Unfortunately there are other examples where the outlook is not as favourable. In Romania or Bulgaria there were first positive signs but they did not come to fruition. This is tragic for the countries concerned and a pity for Europe’s research, for this is the outcome: not one of the Romanians who are ERC Starting Grantees actually works in Romania. We cannot do anything from the outside; it has to be done in the country itself. We met a young, very ambitious minister of science. He could have been an ERC Starting Grantee himself and had left Jean-Marie Lehn in Strasbourg to go back to Romania. He is no longer in office and his two successors have already undone all of the good reforms he initiated. As harsh as it may sound: these countries need to start by getting their own house in order.

FWF: Apart from that, were there any other observations that came as a surprise to you?

Nowotny: Yes, there was one area with surprisingly dynamic developments which we didn’t expect at all, namely the universities. No-one had considered that competition at European level would have a direct impact on the behaviour of universities. Today they rise to the challenge of competing for the best young scientists. They position themselves as institutions that are well able to develop and maintain top-level research and to attract young talents. It is impressive to see the extent to which ERC grants have become the “gold standard”, a true currency of excellence. This is something that works very well I think, without anyone having thought about how it was supposed to work in the beginning.

FWF: There is no master plan behind it?

Helga Nowotny
Source: FWF/Marc Seumenicht
Nowotny: Exactly. We were all surprised by how well things are going. On the one hand, there is the concentration we expected. 50% of the grants go to about 50 institutions; the rest is scattered widely among more than 550 facilities. There are the flukes, by which I mean a talented ERC grantee sitting in a small provincial university, probably not very happy there because everyone around him is very jealous. His grant doesn’t really mean much to his university, and the probability of his staying on is rather slight. That is the one extreme. But then there is the interesting middle field, where the heads of universities say: “We need to make a greater effort; we have been able to position ourselves quite well so far, but we could do more.” This insight creates momentum within the university. New service facilities will be established, for instance, to support ERC grantees. By now, almost all universities make an effort to assist Starting-Grant applicants – inviting them to interviews and similar things. The competition makes both success and failure more visible. The motivation to train hard gets stronger at individual and institutional level, and that is a good thing.

FWF: How, do you think, can Austria prepare for the competition and the larger pie within the context of Horizon 2020 in order to further improve its statistics and track record, which are not all that bad to start with?

Nowotny: Very often you hear the START programme of the FWF called an equivalent of the ERC Starting Grant, with the reservation that only a few top people are accepted by the programme every year. If you compare that to the Dutch Veni, Vidi, Vici programme you will be struck by how much larger that elite training institution is. This is one reason why the Netherlands have scored well in terms of ERC grants up to now. It is remarkable how particularly well they do in the social sciences and humanities. I find that interesting. Everyone I talked to is convinced that Veni, Vidi, Vici plays a pioneering role. The young researchers simply knew the ropes and were obviously motivated to succeed. What I sometimes miss in Austria is the same level of motivation among young people to face the ERC challenge and competition at the international level. If that motivation is absent, you will fall back to your comfort zone, a situation that seems quite pleasant on the face of it, and say to yourself: “Oh well, it’s all right the way it is”. In the medium term this can only lead to dissatisfaction. Breaking this mould needs a host of measures. We need role models, perhaps scouting. The universities need to become proactive in supporting and motivating promising young talents. Austria does not have a lack of talents, but there is sometimes a lack of willpower and of the kind of motivation that says “I want to play in the international league!”

FWF: Professor Nowotny, are you a convinced European at heart?

Nowotny: That is a question I can answer with a clear “yes”.

FWF: What would you reply to a critic who argues that institutions such as the ERC were operating according to a rationale that contributes more to Europe growing further apart than closer together? Is there a way to resolve this contradiction?

Nowotny: Excellence attracts excellence. In science the Matthew principle applies; to that extent it is true that the ERC has triggered a dynamic process that

Excellence attracts excellence. In science the Matthew principle applies.

Helga Nowotny

favours concentration effects. ERC grants are not for everyone. Within the context of Horizon 2020 there is a wide range of other grants. The ERC is like a mirror which shows each member state, but also every university and every individual research discipline, where they stand internationally.

FWF: And at the international level the rankings are assessed and established differently. When you are working towards that goal you can definitely see the ERC as an element that helps give Europe a stronger position or make it stronger?

Nowotny: Absolutely. The political objective is to make Europe attractive in the field of basic research. If we manage to signal to the world that top-level research not only exists in the USA but also in Europe, we will have made some headway. When young researchers, for instance from Asia, settle down in Europe they establish networks here that keep functioning even after they return to their home country. Research universities such as ETH Zürich understood that long ago. Internationalisation is the key to success in science, but, as the Swiss example shows, it will also benefit industry.

FWF: For interaction at the global level. As far as Austria in Europe is concerned, you have taken on a new function. You act as adviser to the Austrian Minister of Science Reinhold Mitterlehner. Could you describe your new role briefly?

Nowotny: Let me emphasise that I hold this function together with a small group that advises the Minister in terms of EU research and innovation policy. I do not see myself at all as ‘chief scientist’, and there are good reasons for there being no chief scientists in continental Europe. Apart from myself, the ERA Council Forum Austria comprises Herman Hauser, an Austrian who became a successful entrepreneur with venture-capital firms in London; Jürgen Mlynek, President of the Helmholtz Association, who is an enormously experienced man and intimately familiar with the transition from basic research to application. Jana Kolar is a chemist from Slovenia and an entrepreneur. She also held the post of Director General at the Slovenian ministry, which means she knows about bureaucracy from the inside, and her position involved a great deal of contact with the EU. Reinhilde Veugelers is an economist and Fellow at the Bruegel Think Tank in Brussels. She has an excellent network in Brussels. One of our tasks will be to help Austria obtain a better position at the European level in terms of research and innovation policy. Another concern will be how to transform Austria from an ‘innovation follower’ to an ‘innovation leader’.

FWF: In your view, what role does the FWF have to play in this context?

Nowotny: The FWF has a very significant role to play. Basic research is at the heart of the matter. Against this backdrop, it is tremendously important to strengthen basic research at the universities through the FWF, i.e. through competitive research grants. I am surprised by how few applications the FWF receives.

FWF: We are surprised by how many there are, but seen in relation to the size of the overall community I have to agree with you. Researchers active in FWF projects are a minority in Austria.

Nowotny: This needs to change. It is not about artificially swelling the number of applications but about achieving a growth mode where the ratio between applications and available funding is right. For all those who consider themselves basic researchers, the FWF should be the first port of call.

FWF: In your opinion, what are the three most vital measures to be taken to give Austria a more successful position in this European competition? What would you recommend?

Nowotny: Strengthening basic research is an indispensable necessity; accordingly, the FWF needs to be better endowed. But this is just one part of the strengthening process. The other elements involve creating awareness in the universities that it is a privilege to conduct basic research. In order to achieve that you first have to create the possibilities for young scientists to do that. We need a grant-seeking culture that goes far beyond the mere writing of applications. Researchers need to develop substantial content for the review process and shape it in a way that further strengthens the substance. It must be easy to recognise that an application contains ideas that are more than just elaborately worded clichés.

My second concern would be to mitigate the widespread – and in most cases inexplicable – contact phobia between business and science and transform it into a reasonable rapprochement. The business world is interested above all in well-educated graduates. They bring state-of-the-art skills and good networking to the

We need a grant-seeking culture that goes far beyond the mere writing of applications.

Helga Nowotny

job. Although, structurally speaking, most Austrian companies are small and medium-sized, there are still opportunities. On the part of science there is an even greater need to become more open. We are moving towards a future where jobs need to be self-organised and self-created. To expect the state, the body politic or the business community to provide employment falls increasingly in the realm of wishful thinking. Particularly young, well-educated individuals – and education is still good in Austria – must be encouraged as graduates to reflect on how to design their own work situation. Who should create jobs if not young people who are given the tools they need for the future? I am convinced that it is time to change our mind-sets and strive for an innovative shaping of the world of work. We are called upon to ensure that the young generation has the courage and the prerequisites for this endeavour.

FWF: These are the first two roadblocks that you see?

Nowotny: The third roadblock is the fact that science and its significance are not yet sufficiently enshrined in public awareness in Austria. It is not enough to organise an annual ‘Long Night of Research’ or similar isolated events. They are a good thing when you want to awaken the curiosity of children, young people and families, but what will the next step be? One can engage and fascinate young people in a variety of ways. The offer would have to be sufficiently diverse. This effort is not addressed solely to an elite, but we need substantial options to provide whole generations with a new understanding of and take on science that is different from the traditional patterns so as to make sure the reactions will not be like in other fields – let me just quote ‘GMO-free Austria’. In this context I would wish that ‘citizen science’, i.e. science open for all, would land in Austria.

In January 2014, Helga Nowotny was appointed adviser to the Austrian Minister for Science, Research and Economy, Reinhold Mitterlehner, in the ERA Council Forum Austria. She is also the initiator of the Wissenschaft ist Zukunft (Research is the Future) petition. From 2007 until 2013 she was appointed Vice-President (until 2010) then President of the European Research Council (ERC). She is Professor emerita of Social Studies of Science at ETH Zurich, where she taught from 1996 until 2002. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Columbia University, NY. and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Vienna. She received the venia legendi at the Faculty of Sociology, University of Bielefeld and at the Faculty of Basic and Integrative Sciences, University of Vienna. In addition to ETH Zurich and the University of Vienna, she has held teaching and research positions at King’s College, Cambridge, in Berlin, Budapest, Paris, Bellagio, Bielefeld and Twente. Helga Nowotny has published more than 300 articles in scientific journals and numerous books.


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