new head of Europe’s leading research funder shares his priorities
On November 1, Maria Leptin will become the new president of the European Research Council (ERC), the first European funding agency for basic research. Leptin, who has a background in developmental genetics, previously served as director of the European Organization for Molecular Biology, the European organization for life sciences, based at the European Laboratory for Molecular Biology (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. She will succeed interim president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, after the brief and controversial term of nanobiologist Mauro Ferrari, who resigned last April.
Leptin spoke to Nature on its projects for the ERC, its role in European science and its importance for early-career researchers.
What are your main priorities as the new president?
The ERC is a fantastic organization with fantastic goals and a fantastic staff. I know that from having been on panels, and I wouldn’t think of coming and saying that everything has to be changed. My first goal will be to keep the ERC stable and highlight its strength. Of course, there are always things that can be improved, such as achieving greater audience engagement. ERC’s service to the scientific community may need to be fine-tuned, as different areas have different needs.
The ERC aims to be independent from politics. What is your plan for the ERC to stay true to its founding mission?
Hope this doesn’t need a plan. We have enough examples to recall how important it is not to interfere with the autonomy of basic research. Everyone recognizes that COVID-19 vaccines have been developed so quickly because a range of fields, which have long received funding for basic research, suddenly came together. It illustrates that necessary and topical science comes from the bottom up from the best scientists.
New methods have emerged, for example in genomics or in data and statistics management, which allow researchers to do or study things that would have been impossible ten years ago. At ERC, we will cover all types of research, from the humanities to physics and biology.
How are you going to promote the value of basic research?
It’s really not easy, and I wouldn’t say I have a recipe. The CER’s budget is decided by the European Parliament and parliamentarians listen very carefully to their home constituencies. It is clear that the public needs to understand what basic research is and what it does for them. We will have to think very seriously about new routes to reach the public – and it will not be just the elderly who will be giving lectures. One way to do this is to work with locally engaged media experts who reach out to the people who need to be reached.
Are you considering any special ERC programs, like on climate or COVID-19 research?
All I can say is give the best researchers a chance to come up with ideas they want to pursue. When something unforeseen happens ten years from now, then people will have access to a lot of the good things that have been done. COVID-19 and climate change are just the best examples we have.
But I wouldn’t do a top-down search. We have programs for that, including the European Innovation Council and the rest of Horizon Europe, the European Union’s seven-year research program. Not all research is there for exploitation. Whether scientists find out about the history of the Lascaux Caves, find out about the Higgs boson, or find out how people lived in Pompeii, it’s just plain exciting, and people love to hear about it. There is an inherent sympathy for human curiosity among citizens, and I think we need to point that out. It’s not just about curing the next disease or saving us from climate change.
ERC funding is highly sought after by scientists at the start of their careers, but the success rates of start-up grants are very low (13.5% in 2020). What is your plan to satisfy young researchers?
Well, I think all researchers should be happy. Of course, I wish I could fund more. I would also like not to let them fall off a cliff after they get their first seed grant, when they apply for consolidation or advanced grants and find that it is even more difficult to get one (pass rates in 2020 were 13% and 8%, respectively). For every fundraising call, there are a lot of good proposals that cannot be funded. I would really like the award rates to increase, but there are only two ways to do it: you either have fewer nominations or more money.
An interview for an ERC Seed Grant is a potentially defining moment in the career of an early career scientist. What’s your advice for a nervous candidate?
You will be nervous; there is nothing you can do about it. If you’re not nervous, you might sound arrogant, which is the worst thing. Be as honest and well prepared as possible. The committee will see through the shine and the poor preparation. If you have a good project and are familiar with the context, the committee will recognize it.
The UK and Switzerland are still negotiating access to Horizon Europe. What does this mean for grant applicants from these countries?
We all desperately hope that Switzerland and the UK will join Horizon Europe. We care about our colleagues in these countries and their science, and we want them in the ERC. At the moment, they can apply for funding, but grants can only be awarded after association agreements have been signed.
Do you think it would be better to keep politics out of science?
It is the prerogative of elected governments to determine what goes on in their constituencies, and if science is one of them, they should have a say. But politicians who aren’t science educated shouldn’t mind our day-to-day business, or tell scientists what’s right and wrong. I would consider it my duty to explain to politicians what is best and make them understand that. They distribute the money, so we have to make them understand what is good for people, rather than saying, “Just stay outside. “
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.