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French Mathematician Tapped as Next ERC President

Doing the math. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon.

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A French mathematician of global renown and with a wealth of international connections has been tapped to become the new president of the European Research Council (ERC), Europe's funding agency for frontier research. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the longtime head of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies (IHES) in Bures-sur-Yvette, France, is slated to succeed Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny, who has presided over the agency since 2010.

The European Commission, which makes the final decision, has not yet announced the appointment, and a commission spokesperson declined to comment today. But a source with inside knowledge of the process confirms to ScienceInsider that Bourguignon, 66, is slated to succeed Nowotny after she steps down on 31 December. Bourguignon said farewell to IHES, a private institute founded in 1958 and modeled on the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, on 31 August.

Bourguignon is a graduate of the École Polytechnique, a famed elite school near Paris that produces many of the France's leaders in government, science, and business. (Among the graduates in his class of 1966 are Jean-Martin Folz, the former CEO of Peugeot Citroën; former European Parliament member Alain Lipietz; and former Louis Vuitton CEO Yves Carcelle.) Bourguignon specialized in differential geometry and received his Ph.D. at the University of Paris VII.

During his 19-year tenure at the helm of IHES, he secured new funds, including from industry, and attracted top talent from around the world. He also helped the institute, traditionally focused on math, branch out into fields like theoretical biology, according to a recent profile story in Le Monde.

EuroScience, a Strasbourg, France-based organization of European scientists, welcomed the impending appointment in a statement issued today. "Professor Bourguignon has been crucial to maintaining and strengthening the atmosphere at the IHES for original, creative research at the very highest levels, and to attract the best minds for shorter and longer stays at the IHES," the statement said.

"At the same time he has built a worldwide community of supporters, not least in Asia, for the IHES which guarantees long-term financial stability of this private Institute." Bourguignon was a member of the group that got EuroScience started in the 1990s and later served on its board. He was also president of France's mathematical society from 1990 to 1992 and of the European Mathematical Society from 1995 to 1998.

In the first 7 years of its existence, the ERC has become popular among European scientists because, in contrast to other E.U. funding mechanisms, it uses excellence as the only criterion, while its application process is relatively straightforward. But the fact that a disproportionate number of its grants arrive in the union's richer countries has occasionally sowed discontent in eastern and southern member states.

Nowotny—who declined to comment on the appointment—says the key challenge for her successor will be to maintain ERC's reputation for excellence in the science it funds and its review process, even as its budget is set to increase from €7.1 billion between 2007 and 2013 to around €13 billion in the next 7-year period. (The ERC's Executive Agency in Brussels will not grow at the same clip, Nowotny says, so the agency's workload is likely to increase.)

Another challenge will be to attract more grantees from outside the European Union, she adds. Nowotny says the groundwork for that has been laid by ERC Secretary General Donald Dingwell, who over the past 2 years has traveled around the world to spread the word about ERC's activities.

As it happens, Bourguignon is a frenetic traveler as well. In the story in Le Monde, he said he has seen Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport "close to a thousand times" during his tenure at IHES, and colleagues have gotten used to receiving e-mails from him from unusual places and at unusual times. Indeed, physicist Nikita Nekrasov, of Stony Brook University in New York, told the paper, "Jean-Pierre is a quantum phenomenon: Lots of energy and momentum, and completely delocalized!"

*Correction, 28 October, 5:38 p.m.: This story has been changed to correct the date that Bourguignon left IHES and the new research areas he introduced at the institute.