Helga Nowotny, President of the ERC

Interview: Helga Nowotny ERC President

What motivates Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, into her sixth decade of encouragement for engineers to be adventurous in their research?

The European Research Council (ERC) was established four years ago with the express aim of funding curiosity-driven frontier research. Helga Nowotny was one of the founding members of the council and, with over 50 years' experience in her field, she shows no signs of slowing down.

Her latest book, 'Naked Genes: Reinventing the Human in the Molecular Age', sees Nowotny team up with molecular biologist Giuseppe Testa to examine the interaction between life sciences and modern-day society.

Q Can you say what it was exactly that initiated your desire to pursue a career in science?

A I knew when I was eight years old that I wanted to be a scientist. It was after the war when there was very little to eat and children were sent to live in the countryside. I happened to be sent to Vorarlberg, which is the westernmost province of Austria, next to the Swiss border. When I arrived, I could not understand one word of the local dialect but after two days my brain suddenly adjusted and I understood everything. I found it fascinating.

Q 2011 has been declared the international year of women in science. Do you feel women are given enough opportunities to enter the field?

AMore needs to be done to change perception of the field, especially the perception of educators. For engineering and technology particularly, you have to start very early to bring girls into this setting where boys tend to dominate. Both teachers and parents think that toys with a technological bent are only for boys, which is simply not true.

Q How much of your time do you dedicate to your research, and what motivates you?

A I spend around 80 per cent of my time working with and for the ERC which, as you can imagine, does not leave much time for other activities. I am interested not only in the social impact of science, but also the preconditions for its progression. Take innovation, for example; one interesting question is, why do innovations happen in certain places, at certain times and with certain people? Innovation is something that happens locally; it happens in specific places. What makes those places such a fertile environment for innovation? To me, that is a fascinating question from a social perspective.

Q What exactly is the focus of ERC funding? Does it invest purely in European talent?

A There are so-called associated countries, which pay a certain amount (negotiated on the basis of GDP) to join the framework programme of the EU which gives them access to the ERC and the right to participate. The most successful among the associated countries are Switzerland, Israel and Norway.

Q Do you think certain areas of the world that are more naturally talented than other areas?

A Very high levels of investment in R&D harbour an extremely innovative society. If a country invests too little, you don't have a chance to get very far, and this of course is of great importance for the new member states. A certain level of investment is essential for talent to take root and flourish. If this critical level is not given, young people move away and you lose the talent that you have at home.

Q So you think it is money that renders these associated countries so successful?

A I would say the Israeli scientific community, for example, benefits from an enormous pool of diversity because Israelis have roots in very different countries – even those born in Israel have ancestors that come from different parts of the world. This diversity in the scientific community and in society at large is another precondition we often talk about. Diversity does not mean everyone agrees, however; other problems are created because of it, but certainly for creativity diversity is extremely stimulating. In the case of Switzerland, the EIC grantees are very often not Swiss but have moved to Switzerland because they find good working conditions there.

Q What would you say you are most proud of as a result of your work with the ERC?

A We have achieved a very high level of credibility within the scientific community and support over 1,800 EIC grantees; half of them are young scientists (between two and 12 years after PhD). Each of the EIC grantees can employ on average five post-grad or PhD students, so we are building up a truly European community that did not exist before.

This is a diverse community of researchers who are doing excellent work and who are truly European: I am very proud to have played a part in establishing that.

Q The EU's bureaucratic tendencies are highly publicised – what is your experience of it?

A We have an executive agency to do the administration, and in the beginning we had a huge number of problems with them. This has eased over time but we are not quite there yet, because there are still too many regulations that everyone who receives EU money is bound by.

Regulations are made by finance ministers who don't think about research, they just think about the treasury. There is also too much auditing being done – everyone agrees there must be auditing, but we have multiple layers of auditing systems instead of having one more integrated auditing system.

There are a number of things that have not been done with the ERC in mind but they are there, and we are bound by them. We want to create more flexibility in order to allow us to fulfil our mission.

Q The ERC invests a great deal of money in creativity (approaching €3bn since its inception in 2007). What effect would you say this over-regulation has?

A It's stifling. You cannot regulate creativity. You must allow space for creativity to unfold. Of course, you need some constraints, you need accountability – no one denies that – but we are fighting for independent space for creativity.

Q You have achieved a great deal in your time at the ERC. Are you ready to ease off the pedal a little now?

A I am very satisfied, yes, but there is still much more to be done. Our aim with the next framework programme is to secure a larger budget. [Nowotny has set herself the weighty task of securing a budget increase of more than 200 per cent for the next seven-year programme].

Europe is full of talented young people, and we want the universities and research institutes to empower them, to give them the space of autonomy and the scientific independence they need. *

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