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ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon visits Leiden University

Storm clouds are gathering for the European grants for ‘excellent’ research. Researchers therefore need to explain how important these grants are. This is what Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President of the European Research Council (ERC), had to say during a visit to Leiden University on Thursday 24 April.

Of the EU member states, the Netherlands is awarded, in relation to its size, the most ERC grants: 770 thus far, worth a total of €1.4b. Many researchers at Leiden University have been awarded an ERC grant too. During his visit, Bourguignon spoke to some of them.

Risks of Brexit

One storm cloud that is looming for the ERC is the loss of the United Kingdom’s contribution after Brexit. Other member states have been asked to increase their contribution, but not all are willing to do so, Bourguignon explained during a round table with ERC laureates in the Academy Building. He urged the researchers from Leiden to tell policymakers and politicians not only how pleased they are with the grants but also how important these are for excellent degree programmes. ‘Many politicians want to see immediate results, but we have to keep investing in the future, and you are the future,’ Bourguignon said.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon spoke to ERC laureates at Leiden University.
Jean-Pierre Bourguignon spoke to ERC laureates at Leiden University.

Interdisciplinary research

Professor of Health Psychology Andrea Evers spoke about how happy she was with the ERC grants that she had received. She researches topics such as placebo effects and how the body itself can relieve conditions such as chronic pain, depression and inflammation. This could mean that patients need less medicine in the future. She calls the ERC grants ‘the best thing to happen to me in my research career. I was working at the interface between medicine and psychology and was always a bit of a misfit.’ That changed thanks to the ERC, according to Evers one of the few grant providers that actually values interdisciplinary research. ‘For the ERC it is all about distinctive and unique research, and that is of such fundamental importance that we really should treasure it.

A tour of the Brain and Development Research Center.
A tour of the Brain and Development Research Center.

How conflicts arise

In the morning, several ERC laureates gave a short presentation on their research in the Social Sciences building. Carsten de Dreu, Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology, spoke about his research into the influence of external factors such as climate change, the economy and political stability on the emergence of conflict. This has already shown, for instance, that between 1500 and 1900, conflict was more likely in Europe after a decade of rising wheat prices.

Computer games

Professor of General Psychology Bernhard Hommel spoke about his research into willpower and perseverance, and enlisted Bourguignon as a test subject, getting him to play a computer game that tests these. And at the Brain and Development Research Center at the Psychology Department, Bourguignon was brought up to speed on Eveline Crone’s large-scale research into adolescent relationships. She is a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC. ‘A fantastic member,’ Bourguignon noted.

The ERC President was put to work, playing a computer game that tests your willpower and perseverance.
The ERC President was put to work, playing a computer game that tests your willpower and perseverance.

Human scale

Bourguignon was impressed by how the wide variety of backgrounds of the Leiden researchers who are working with an ERC grant. He was also enchanted with the ‘beautiful city of Leiden,’ the role of the University in it and the ‘vibrancy’ that the students lend to the city. He said that he admired the ‘human scale’ of Leiden University. ‘It’s exactly the right size. So different from, for instance, American universities that I have visited, with 100,000 students.’

Simcha Jong Kon Chin, Professor of Science-Based Business, whose research is funded by an ERC grant, shared his experiences with Bourguignon.
Simcha Jong Kon Chin, Professor of Science-Based Business, whose research is funded by an ERC grant, shared his experiences with Bourguignon.

Mathematician

Bourguignon himself is a mathematician. His research was in the days when there were no European grants at all, but the researchers of his generation had other privileges. ‘When I was 21, I was able to choose from four jobs. I opted for a research institute, where I could do risky research. I was earning money, not a lot, but enough to start a family when I was only 23. It’s a different world for young people nowadays.’ One of the goals of the ERC is to award relatively more grants to young researchers.

Bourguignon is optimistic about the ERC’s contribution to excellent research. ‘Storm clouds may be gathering, but it isn’t raining yet,’ he said.

‘Storm clouds are gathering for European research grants. Researchers have to tell the world how important these grants are,’ said Bourguignon.
‘Storm clouds are gathering for European research grants. Researchers have to tell the world how important these grants are,’ said Bourguignon.

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