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Research Funding

After period of uncertainty, the European Commission appoints new ERC President

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
July 10, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 25

On June 30, the European Commission appointed Maria Leptin, an expert in developmental biology and immunology at the University of Cologne, the next president of the European Research Council (ERC). The ERC is the European Union’s most prominent research-funding agency. Its job is to fund research in any scientific domain, including social sciences, humanities, and interdisciplinary studies. As such, ERC “selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe,” with scientific excellence being the sole selection criterion. Leptin will take office Oct 1.

With any luck, this is the end of the saga. I call it a saga because it is a long story and is certainly dramatic. Back in January 2020, the ERC welcomed a new president, its fourth since the organization was created in 2007: Mauro Ferrari, an Italian American expert in nanomedicine. The ERC described him as “an accomplished scientist and leader in the USA” who would be returning to Europe and bringing a fresh perspective to the organization. Ferrari had spent his career in the US and was for all intents and purposes an outsider to the European scientific community.

He left the post after 3 months, resigning in protest over what he stated as the European Union’s lack of an appropriate response to the COVID-19 crisis. Ferrari also cited the ERC leadership’s refusal to fund a proposal he had made to create a COVID-19 response program.

The governing body countered that Ferrari had neglected his duty and “failed to understand his role” and the ERC’s raison d’être: the agency does not target specific areas of science or consider societal impact for funding purposes. It is inconceivable that it would fund COVID-related research.

The previous president, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, a French mathematician who led ERC for 2014–19, agreed to temporarily reclaim the position, providing the ERC the necessary leadership and direction until a new president could be appointed.

I wrote at the time that perhaps the ERC should have considered funding COVID-related research, not to appease Ferrari but because we were—we still are—living in extraordinary circumstances. We have been remarkably fortunate that several viable vaccines became available in record time, but the global death toll due to COVID-19 just passed 4 million. This is roughly as if the population of Croatia were wiped out in about 1.5 years. This figure is also believed to be an underrepresentation of the real death count. And, of course, we are nowhere near the end of this pandemic, with multiple variants in existence and serious inequalities around the globe in terms of vaccine availability.

Regardless, this is and never was an option for ERC, and Leptin is now picking up the mantle. She has great credentials as the leader of two research groups: one at the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Cologne and another at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. She is also the director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, a professional group of more than 1,800 life scientists with a mission to promote research in the life sciences and enable international exchange between scientists.

She’ll need that experience to navigate her term at ERC. In addition to providing stability at the helm, she’ll be faced with a tougher financial picture than her predecessors. After recent negotiations with EU policy makers, the ERC’s 2021–27 budget was finalized at €16 billion ($19 billion) over 7 years; after accounting for inflation, that’s a minimal increase over the 2014–20 budget, which was €13 billion. And the ERC is oversubscribed. In early June it celebrated the funding of 10,000 researchers since the organization launched, but Nature had reported in January 2020 that “an average of just 11% of applications have been funded.”

Leptin will serve a 4-year appointment that is renewable once for 2 years.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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