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Helga Nowotny, President of the ERC: "Europe must regain its confidence through science"

Helga Nowotny is the president of the European Research Council (ERC), which provides funding to Europe's outstanding researchers. She advocates for transcending boundaries, increasing healthy competition and encouraging curiosity-based research.

Helga Nowotny is the president of the European Research Council (ERC), which provides funding to Europe's outstanding researchers. She advocates for transcending boundaries, increasing healthy competition and encouraging curiosity-based research.

"My career has been coloured by obstacles and surprises," says Helga Nowotny (74) in her hometown of Vienna. After her law studies and before embarking to New York to study sociology, she had her eye on a job in the Department of Criminology at the University of Vienna. "The professor had high esteem of my capability, but he did not want to hire a woman. In the end, we agreed that if he found a more qualified man for the job, he'd offer it to him. When all was said and done, I got the job. There were pleasant surprises, too, such as when an ETH Zurich professor asked me to become a professor. I had not applied for the position, but was happy to oblige. If you work hard, you'll overcome obstacles and tease out surprises."

Nowotny, who specialised in the sociology of science and is now Austria's most prominent sociologist, has given up the lecture hall for the boardroom. As of March 2010, she is at the helm of the European Research Council (ERC), which recently celebrated its fifth year. Europe's top researchers vie for ERC grants, substantial awards supporting fundamental, innovative and independent research. In total, the ERC has awarded 2,600 grants totalling 4.2 billion euro. "I am happy to hold up the flag for science at Leuven International Forum, and to be in the company of so many respected colleagues from all areas of life. It is a great honour."

Competent rebels

"Since the European Enlightenment – the beginning of modern science – we believe that the systematic investigation of the natural world can improve people's lives. Today, we have the opportunity to take this one huge step further and actualise the potential of science, but the question is whether society is willing to invest in science in times of economic crisis and the prospect of a fragile future."

Nowotny sees only one answer. "We need science and scientists in order to regain our confidence. The crisis has dealt a serious blow to Europe's confidence, but Europe is still a prosperous continent where much is possible. We must think in terms of more Europe, not less. The risk is that we fall back into national or nationalist ideas, but scientists should not be restrained by national boundaries."

For Nowotny, top researchers are competent rebels. "They must call into question the work of the previous generation, always based on skills and knowledge. There must also be room for a large variety of new ideas. The pressure on young researchers to publish is enormous, but this should never mean that they must think in the mainstream. Their curiosity carries them into unknown territory and that is why policy makers and fund providers must have patience and trust. Seemingly useless knowledge can later prove to be very useful."

Realistic optimist

Nowotny sees universities as essential innovation centres, but they too must reflect on the future. "There is something called the legal fiction of egality of universities; the belief that every doctoral degree is equally valuable, regardless of where it has been acquired. Now, through the ERC, we see an interesting new phenomenon: for the first time in continental Europe, universities are competing with each other for ERC funding. Competition is a good thing. Science not only depends on cooperation but also on competition. It keeps the universities alert."

The ERC hopes to remain a vital player in this game. Its annual budget continues to increase and will reach 1.6 billion euro in 2013. But Nowotny is thinking ahead. "We are part of the negotiations for the next framework programme – 'Horizon 2020' – of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the member states. This will set the budgets from 2014 to 2020 and we are aiming for an increase of 77% over the previous period. I call myself a realistic optimist. The European Commission supports us and I hope that other partners will follow. With our small part of that large budget, we want to continue what we successfully started."

After 2014, when her terms at the ERC ends, Nowotny has plans for other projects. "I want to publish one more major book. The privilege of being a scientist is that you can continue working as long as you have ideas and a clear head."

About this event

Leuven International Forum: Networking for knowledge and society is a premier networking event bringing together Belgian, European and international leaders of the triple helix partners – the university, industry and government – for the advancement of knowledge and service to society.

Leuven International Forum took place on 1 June 2012. The next edition will be held on 30 May 2014.