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Biologist to lead Europe’s premier research funder

Portrait of Maria Leptin

Maria Leptin will become president of the European Research Council in October.Credit: Michael Wodak/MedizinFotoKöln 2021

German developmental geneticist Maria Leptin will become the next president of the European Research Council (ERC), Europe’s major funding agency for basic research.

The European Commission announced the decision on 30 June, and Leptin will take the reins in October.

Her appointment follows the brief and controversial tenure of Mauro Ferrari, who resigned in April last year after just three months, amid claims from the ERC’s governing body that he neglected core responsibilities and spent too much time on his own projects.

Ferrari had said he resigned because the ERC rejected his proposal for a special programme to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Former ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon resumed the role after Ferrari’s departure and has been at the helm since then.

“The ERC has experienced a bit of turbulence, but this appointment ushers in stability,” says Giulio Superti-Furga, scientific director of the Research Center of Molecular Medicine in Vienna, and a former member of the ERC’s Scientific Council. “Maria brings scientific credibility, and she knows how to convince politicians of the value of basic research.”

Leptin is currently director of EMBO, Europe’s life-sciences organization, which is based at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. She runs research groups at EMBL and the University of Cologne in Germany.

Leptin says that one of her main priorities as president will be to persuade the commission to increase funding in its next financing round, and to launch grass-roots outreach campaigns to convey the value of basic, knowledge-seeking research.

This year, the ERC will distribute €1.9 billion (US$2.3 billion) in grants, but Bourguignon has complained that this will not be enough to raise the low success rates of its various programmes. Last year, the agency funded fewer than 14% of evaluated proposals for starting grants for younger scientists. For Synergy grants, where up to four principal investigators collaborate on complex research questions, the proportion of proposals funded dropped below 8%.

Leptin has experience leading ERC grant-evaluation panels. She says it is distressing for panellists to have to reject grant proposals that are deemed excellent. “And it is awful for those scientists, too.”

Leptin intends to wind down her labs at EMBL and Cologne. “My job will be ERC president and nothing else,” she says. “But I will miss doing research very much — that’s the one painful thing.”



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