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“Supporting frontier research is truly an investment to our collective future!”

ERC Vice President and FRESCO Fellow Nektarios Tavernarakis on research funding, COVID and his project


As one of the first fellows in the FRESCO programme, Professor of Molecular Systems Biology Nektarios Tavernarakis will join FRIAS and the Clusters of Excellence BIOSS and CiBSS in August. But Prof. Tavernarakis is not only an excellent scientist. As recently elected Vice President of the European Research Council, he also has profound knowledge on research funding and policy. Because of this exceptional double perspective, we have asked Prof. Tavernarakis for some insight on questions regarding funding, COVID and his own research.



Prof. Dr. Nektarios Tavernarakis

External Senior Fellow (FRESCO) August 2021 – December 2025

Chairman, Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH)

Professor of Molecular Systems Biology, Medical School, University of Crete

Vice President, European Research Council (ERC)

Member of the German National Academy of Sciences-Leopoldina

Prof. Tavernarakis (c) Christos Tsoumplekas


As one of the first fellows in the FRESCO programme, Professor of Molecular Systems Biology Nektarios Tavernarakis will join FRIAS and the Clusters of Excellence BIOSS and CiBSS in August. But Prof. Tavernarakis is not only an excellent scientist. As recently elected Vice President of the European Research Council, he also has profound knowledge on research funding and policy. Because of this exceptional double perspective, we have asked Prof. Tavernarakis for some insight on questions regarding funding, COVID and his own research.

 

For FRIAS it is a special honour to count you among our Fellows for the year 2021, Professor Tavernarakis. You are not only a renowned scientist yourself, but you have also recently been elected Vice President of the European Research Council. What are you looking forward to in this new position? What challenges do you expect?

First, I would like to note that it is my honour to have been elected Fellow of the Freiburg Research Collaboration Programme (FRESCO), of FRIAS. I am looking forward to interacting with my colleagues at the excellent science ecosystem of Freiburg University.

The ERC is already universally considered to be a major European success story. It stands as a radiant paradigm of how prudent investment in frontier research can reap enormous benefits for society and the scientific community. My aim is to work closely with my colleagues towards further advancing what has been achieved so far, and promoting the ERC’s mission: the support of frontier research on the basis of scientific excellence.

As a member of the scientific community, I am unreservedly convinced that Europe needs “more ERC”. Every year, the ERC evaluates many more excellent proposals (about 30% more!), than it can eventually fund. This is quite disheartening to European scientists, and to those from all over the world, who want to come and do research in Europe. The ERC budget should be substantially increased to allow support of all worthy projects. Together with my colleagues at the Scientific Council, I want to work methodically towards this important objective. Strengthening the role of the ERC as an instrument that supports research excellence across Europe is a prudent strategy towards tangible societal benefits and fortification against unpredictable threats.

An additional challenge pertains to widening the participation to the ERC funding schemes. I’d love to see more applications coming in from such countries that are currently hosting relatively fewer grantees. This also includes my own country, Greece. To a large extent, this goal is contingent to developing corresponding research support policies locally, at the national level. The ERC is already contributing in this direction.

 

Which challenges does the ongoing pandemic cause for the ERC’s work?

Understandably, the pandemic has imposed significant challenges to the operations of the ERC. The evaluation panel meetings, the ERC Scientific Council meetings, and the interviews of applicants had to switch to teleconference mode. Although, as you can imagine, this has been a logistics nightmare, I can safely say that there has been no perceptible disruption of the workflow and the assessment of applications.

But it might be more relevant to consider the question of how the ERC addresses the challenges on science policy imposed by the pandemic. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that supporting frontier research is truly an investment to our collective future! The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that global policy making strategies should prioritize investment in frontier blue skies research. The need for the ERC's support of bottom up, basic and applied research is even more relevant than ever.

It is this strategy that stands any chance of protecting us in the face of unpredictable threats, such as SARS-CoV-2, and is best poised to address the diverse and complex challenges our world is confronted with. Take, for example, the RNA vaccines that were recently developed and found to be more than 90% effective against the corona virus. The technology on which they are based is the result of more than 20 years of basic research on RNA biology. There would have been no way a vaccine could have been developed in just a few months without such prior effort. We owe this unprecedented vaccine development success to the long-term investment in the basic research that preceded it. Likewise, the CRISPR-Cas technology, which was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is based on fundamental observations in humble bacteria, dating back to the late 1980s. No one suspected at that time the cataclysmic progress that would follow more than 20 years later, with regard to the potentially disruptive applications based on this revolutionary technology.

This goes to show how invaluable curiosity-driven research is for human societies to overcome the immense challenges ahead. Neglecting, or putting frontier research in the back seat, is a short-sighted strategy that would certainly spell disaster for humanity, in the long run.

 

What do institutions, especially Institutes for Advanced Studies like FRIAS, have to pay particular attention to under the given circumstances in order to support scientists in the best way possible?

Lockdown measures implemented all over the world have had an immense impact on the operation of Research Centres and Universities. Ensuring the continuity of ongoing research activity while complying with imposed restrictions, is a rather difficult task. It requires multiple approaches to balance onsite and remote work.

At the same time, the very act of overcoming the crisis and its consequences requires the intensification of research efforts in diverse areas of research. Approaching sustainable development goals and battling unpredictable existential threats akin to the current pandemic are among the major global and European challenges for the future. Rising up to these challenges will require the concerted efforts of scientific communities across the globe.

We are already witnessing such spontaneous, bottom up global coordination of research activities in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In a very short period of time, the virus and its modus operandi have been characterized in great detail, and we already have highly efficient vaccines and therapeutics. This is a truly amazing feat and speaks volumes about the power and value of scientific research.

Moreover, the technological advancements that are ushering in the new era of the 4th Industrial Revolution are the product of frontier research conducted decades ago. In addition to supporting research, I believe it is critical to intensify investment on science education. It is important to thoroughly and wisely consider the ethical implications of innovative, cutting-edge technologies that are becoming available at a breath-taking pace. Europe needs to remain a major player and, surely, reinforce its position in the global arena. The ERC has already contributed significantly in this direction.

 

Thinking ahead to your Fellowship in Freiburg with the FRESCO programme: What are you looking forward to regarding your first fellowship months this year?

My research focuses on the molecular mechanisms and signalling pathways governing cellular metabolism, neurodegeneration, and ageing. Ageing is associated with marked decrease of neuronal function and increased susceptibility to neurodegeneration. This is true for organisms as diverse as the lowly worm Caenorhabditis elegans as well as humans. Although age-related deterioration of the nervous system is a universal phenomenon, its cellular and molecular underpinnings remain obscure.

In the context of the FRESCO programme, I am going to target fundamental and specific questions of modern ageing research: What cellular and molecular mechanisms underlie age-related neuronal function decline? And how does mitophagy modulate susceptibility to neurodegeneration during ageing?

The proposed research activities provide ample scope and opportunities for collaborative research projects between FRIAS and my home institution. I am committed to engage actively with colleagues at FRIAS towards facilitating and establishing long-lasting collaborations between the University of Freiburg and the University of Crete. Importantly, the Profile and Emerging Fields identified by the University of Freiburg are directly related with the research interests of my team at the University of Crete, e.g. Biological Signalling Research and Metabolism research. The ultimate aim is to form a long-term partnership that will extend beyond the 5-year period of my FRESCO Fellowship.