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‘Politicians shouldn’t meddle’: new chief of Europe’s major research funder shares priorities

Maria Leptin

Maria Leptin becomes president of the European Research Council on 1 November.Credit: EMBL PhotoLab

On 1 November, Maria Leptin will become the new head of the European Research Council (ERC), Europe’s premier funding agency for basic research. Leptin, whose background is in developmental genetics, previously served as director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, Europe’s life-sciences organization, based at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. She will take over from interim president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, following the brief and controversial tenure of nanobiologist Mauro Ferrari, who resigned in April last year.

Leptin spoke to Nature about her plans for the ERC, its role in European science and its significance for early-career researchers.

What are your top priorities as incoming president?

The ERC is a fantastic organization with fantastic aims and a fantastic staff. I know it well from having been on panels, and I wouldn’t dream of coming in and saying we have to change everything. My first aim will be to keep the ERC stable and emphasize its strength. Of course, there are always things that can be improved, such as attaining broader public engagement. The ERC’s service to the scientific community might need tweaking, because different fields have different needs.

The ERC aims to be independent from politics. What is your plan to keep the ERC true to its founding mission?

I’m hoping this doesn’t need a plan. We have sufficient examples to remind people of how important it is not to meddle with the autonomy of basic research. Everybody recognizes that COVID-19 vaccines were developed so fast because a range of fields, which had been receiving basic-research funding for a long time, suddenly came together. It illustrates that necessary and topical science comes bottom-up from the best scientists.

New methods have been arising, for instance in genomics or data management and statistics, that allow researchers to do or study things that would have been impossible ten years ago. At the ERC, we will look at all types of research, from the humanities to physics and biology.

How will you promote the value of basic research?

That’s really not easy, and I wouldn’t say that I have a recipe. The ERC’s budget is decided by EU member states but also by the European Parliament, and parliamentarians listen very strongly to their home constituencies. It’s clear that the public needs to realize what basic research is about and what it does for them. We will have to think very hard about new routes to get to the public — and it’s not just going to be senior people giving lectures. One way to get there is working with locally engaged media experts that reach the people who need to be reached.

Do you envision special ERC programmes, such as on climate or COVID-19 research?

All I can say is give the best researchers a chance to come up with ideas that they want to pursue. When something unforeseen happens in ten years’ time, then people will have access to a lot of good stuff that’s been done. COVID-19 and climate change are just the best examples we have.

But I would not go for top-down research. We have programmes for that, including the European Innovation Council and the rest of Horizon Europe, the European Union’s seven-year research programme. Not all research is there for exploitation. If scientists find out about the history of the Lascaux caves, discover the Higgs boson or work out how people lived in Pompeii, that’s just exciting, and people love hearing about it. There is an inherent sympathy for human curiosity in citizens, and I think we have to point that out. It’s not just about curing the next disease or saving us from climate change.

ERC funding is very sought after by early-career scientists, but success rates for starting grants are very low (13.5% in 2020). What’s your plan to keep young researchers happy?

Well, I think all researchers should be kept happy. Of course I’d like to be able to fund more of them. I also would like to not let them fall off a cliff after getting their first starting grant, when they apply for consolidator or advanced grants and find out it’s even tougher to get one (2020 success rates were 13% and 8%, respectively). For every funding call, there are lots of good proposals that cannot be funded. I really would like the award rates go up, but there’s only two ways to do this: you have either fewer applications or more money.

An interview for an ERC starting grant is a potentially career-defining moment for an early-career scientist. What’s your advice for a nervous applicant?

You’ll be nervous; there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re not nervous, you might come across as arrogant — which is the worst thing. Be as honest and well-prepared as you can be. The committee will see through gloss and bad preparation. If you have a good project and know the background well, the committee will recognize that.

The United Kingdom and Switzerland are still negotiating access to Horizon Europe. What does this mean for grant applicants from these countries?

We are all desperately hoping that Switzerland and the United Kingdom will associate with Horizon Europe. We care about our colleagues in these countries and their science, and we want them in the ERC. At the moment, UK-based researchers can apply for funding, but grants can be awarded only once the association agreements have been signed.

Do you think it would be better to keep politics out of science?

It’s the prerogative of elected governments to determine what goes on in their constituencies, and if science is part of that they should have a say. But politicians who are not trained in science should not meddle in our day-to-day business, or tell scientists what’s right or wrong. I would see it as my duty to explain to politicians what’s best, and to get them to realize that. They distribute the money, so we have to make them understand what’s good for people, rather than say, “Just stay out.”

Nature 598, 553 (2021)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02885-w

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 25 October 2021: This article has been updated to clarify that the ERC's budget is decided by both the European Parliament and EU member states, and that UK-based researchers can currently apply for ERC funding.

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