Archive for Europe

wrong timing for lowering ERC budget

Posted in pictures, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , on October 8, 2020 by xi'an

As posted in the recent issue of Nature, a pandemic is not the best time to lower the European Research Council budget! And to quote

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon is furious. The mathematician is interim president of the European Research Council (ERC), and is outraged by proposals that the agency’s budget for 2021–27 is to be cut by €1.3 billion, a reduction of almost 10% from the €14.7 billion that had been proposed by the European Commission in 2018. “I don’t understand it,” he told Nature. He wants the decision reversed. So do we.

This is especially damaging when considering the controversy surrounding the “resignation” of the previous ERC president, Mauro Ferrari, who claimed he left because the ERC refused to allocate special funds to fighting the pandemics (while the ERC scientific council pointed out his lack of investment and multiple external positions, esp. in the US). The ERC scientific council also expressed at the time how much funding fundamental research has benefited the European contribution to fighting COVID. (The forced resignation of Mauro Ferrari was the reason for Jean-Pierre Bourguignon returning as an interim president, until a new president is designated by an ERC search committee.)

Beyond the tremendous contraction of the European economy due to the pandemic and the Keynesian allocation of supporting resources to desperate companies, another reason for the reduction of the ERC budget is the UK leaving the EU and hence no longer participating to its budget. However, further funds have been allocated to medical research, as well as to defence projects, thus to the detriment of fundamental research. A classical political move, seeking short term gains over long time prospects…

launch of ELLIS

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2020 by xi'an

The European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems (ELLIS) is a network (inspired by the Canadian LMB CIFAR network ) that has been recently created to keep European research in artificial intelligence and machine learning at the forefront, to keep up with North America and China where the AI investments are far superior. It has currently 30 units and will be officially launched this Tuesday, 15 September with live streaming. (I am part of the Paris Ellis Unit, directed by Gabiel Peyré.) It also organizes PhD and postdoc exchange programs.

resignation of ERC president

Posted in University life with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2020 by xi'an

[Reposting the ERC Scientific Council statement about the resignation of Mauro Ferrari:]

The ERC’s Scientific Council notes with regret the statement made by Mauro Ferrari concerning his resignation on 7 April. We here present the facts of the situation.

On Friday 27 March, all 19 active members of the ERC’s Scientific Council individually and unanimously requested that Mauro Ferrari resign from his position as ERC’s President.

This request was made for four reasons:

  1. During his three-month term in office, Professor Ferrari displayed a complete lack of appreciation for the raison-d’être of the ERC to support excellent frontier science, designed and implemented by the best researchers in Europe. Although voicing his support for this in public pronouncements, the proposals he made to the Scientific Council did not reflect this position. He did not understand the context of the ERC within the EU’s Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020.
  2. Since his appointment, Professor Ferrari displayed a lack of engagement with the ERC, failing to participate in many important meetings, spending extensive time in the USA and failing to defend the ERC’s programme and mission when representing the ERC.
  3. In contrast, Professor Ferrari made several personal initiatives within the Commission, without consulting or tapping into the collective knowledge of the Scientific Council, and instead using his position to promote his own ideas.
  4. Lastly, Professor Ferrari was involved in multiple external enterprises, some academic and some commercial, which took a lot of his time and effort and appeared on several occasions to take precedence over his commitment to ERC. The workload associated with these activities proved to be incompatible with the mandate of President of the Scientific Council.

Professor Ferrari subsequently resigned on 7 April 2020. Therefore, his resignation in fact followed a written unanimous vote of no confidence. In contrast, Professor Ferrari has stated that the reason for his resignation is that the Scientific Council did not support his call for the ERC to fund a special initiative focused on the COVID-19 virus. To address this point specifically, we did not support a special initiative because that is not our remit and the Commission’s Research and Innovation Directorate General, with which we are connected, was already very active in developing new programmes to support this research through the appropriate channels.

Indeed, many ERC funded researchers have been active for some time in researching the coronavirus family and many other equally dangerous pathogens. Over 50 ongoing or completed ERC projects supported for a total value of about EUR 100 million are contributing to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing insights from several different scientific fields such as: virology, epidemiology, immunology, paths for new diagnostics and treatments, public health, medical devices, artificial intelligence, social behaviour, crisis management.

In addition, as stated on its website in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis, the ERC offers ‘grantees the flexibility to adjust their research project”. This is an efficient measure because several ERC grantees already enquired about the possibility of addressing COVID-19 related research in their ongoing ERC project. All this information is publicly available on the ERC website, which also includes testimonies from funded ERC grantees on how bottom-up frontier research is critical to deliver new – and sometimes unexpected – insights relevant for better understanding and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for providing social behaviour and crisis management related solutions.

However, the ERC does not make calls for specific topics, since a guiding principle of ERC is that our researchers are free to pursue the goals they define and to decide on what they wish to work. In our view, this is a crucial way to generate the best science.

The Scientific Council wishes to clarify, in case of any doubt, that they absolutely endorse the view that scientific research will provide the best solutions to tackling pandemics, such as COVID-19.

Therefore, we regret Professor Ferrari’s statement, which at best is economical with the truth. This Scientific Council remains dedicated to pursuing the mission for which the ERC was established: the support of bottom-up ground-breaking research. It is also worth noting that despite the pandemic, the ERC Executive Agency is struggling against the odds to actively process applications for our Consolidator Grants and Starting Grants, which will support researchers throughout Europe to make the discoveries of the future.

The ERC Scientific Council

turning forty…

Posted in Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , on July 26, 2019 by xi'an

The previous days have been rather tough thanks to another heat wave all over Europe, with the temperatures at home reaching above 40⁰ (outside) yesterday afternoon and more importantly not getting under 30⁰ inside the house at night, as there was no wind at all to cool it down. (Except in the basement  where I ended up sleeping.) After a certain point, as I am pretty susceptible to hot weather, working became impossible and I spent the rest of the day alternating between drinking cold water, taking cold showers, eating radishes, and watching low intensity movies (like The Crimes of Grindelwald!). The day before, my daughter and I tried a late afternoon trip to the nearby outside pool in the parc but this proved quite a disaster as it was so crowded that it was almost impossible to do laps (in a water of questionable composition). Temperatures are now down a wee bit but I wondering at ways to better insulate our house against what is becoming the new “normal”…. Like installing a massive circus tent every summer.

the Montréal declarAIon

Posted in University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2019 by xi'an

In conjunction with Yoshua Bengio being one of the three recipients of the 2018 Alan Turing award, Nature ran an interview of him about the Montréal Déclaration for a responsible AI, which he launched at NeurIPS last December.

“Self-regulation is not going to work. Do you think that voluntary taxation works? It doesn’t.”

Reflecting on the dangers of abuse of and by AIs, from surveillance, to discrimination, but being somewhat unclear on the means to implement the ten generic principles listed there. (I had missed the Declaration when it came up.) I agree with the principles stressed by this list, well-being, autonomy, privacy, democracy, diversity, prudence, responsability, and sustainability, it remains to be seem how they can be imposed upon corporations whose own public image puts more restraint on them than ethics or on governments that are all too ready to automatise justice, police, and the restriction of citizen’s rights. Which makes the construction of a responsible AI institution difficult to imagine, if the current lack of outreach of the extra-national institutions is the gauge. (A striking coincidence is that, when  Yoshua Bengio pointed out that France was trying to make Europe an AI power, there was also a tribune in Le Monde about the lack of practical impact of this call to arms, apart from more academics moving to half-time positions in private companies.) [Warning: the picture does not work well with the dark background theme of this blog.]