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German biologist appointed head of European basic science agency | Science

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Biologist Maria Leptin will be the fifth president of the European Research Council.

Michael Wodak / MedizinFotoKöln

By Nicolas Wallace

The European Commission yesterday appointed German biologist Maria Leptin as the new president of the European Research Council (ERC), who, asThe largest funder of basic sciences distributes around € 2 billion in grants per year. Leptin will be ERCs fifth president; his four-year term begins on October 1.

Leptin comes to the ERC after 10 years as head of the European Organization for Molecular Biology (EMBO), an intergovernmental research institute based in Heidelberg, Germany, funded by 30 countries. She is seen as a safe pair of hands following the dramatic resignation last year of her predecessor, Italian-American nanoscientist Mauro Ferrari. Ferrari retires after falling out with ERCs Scientific Council, a body of 22 scientists chaired by the president, on how to use the ERC budget in the midst of a pandemic.

I hope this is the end of the drama for the ERC, ”said Lidia Borrell-Damián, general secretary of Science Europe, an association of science funding bodies. The ERC is there to promote exploratory research, not to star in a drama.

Unlike Ferrari, who has spent much of her career in the United States, Leptin is an insider: she has chaired an evaluation committee for ERC grants since 2008. She is not a deus ex machina coming from outside with very special ideas, ”explains Bernhard Eitel, rector of the University of Heidelberg, where Leptin graduated in 1979 with a degree in mathematics and biology. Leptin is a extraordinary scientist ”whose experience at EMBO gave him in-depth knowledge of European research processes as well as European research policy, ”says Eitel.

When Ferrari resigned last year, the Scientific Council accused him of neglecting his duties as president to serve his business interests in the United States, and of misunderstanding the “raison d’être” of the ERC, allegations it denied. Leptin is no longer a classical academician ”, with the knowledge needed to run a board thatIt’s more of an academic institution, ”explains Christian Ehler, a German member of the European Parliament who focuses on research policy.

To protect the science of politics, the ERC only awards grants for bottom-up and curiosity-driven proposals, and it never defines specific topics in its calls for proposals. This political independence is vigorously defended by the Scientific Council, which is why FerrariThe pressure from s for a specific call on COVID-19 sparked an uproar, especially when he discussed his ideas with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

The Scientific Council appears to have been more closely involved in the choice of Leptin than it was in the nomination of Ferrari, said Jan Palmowski, general secretary of the Guild of Research-Intensive European Universities. We absolutely need a president who enjoys the confidence of the Scientific Council and who takes its concerns seriously, ”he said.

Leptin says she will try to prevent further clashes. My style of getting things done is to find consensus rather than start a war, ”she says, although she points out thatis not a criticism of its predecessor. She says she will continue the fight ”for the ERCs budget, which amounts to 16 billion euros for 2021-2027, from the Horizon Europe program of 95.5 billion euros.

Although it will stick to the principle of excellence ”as the sole criterion for awarding scholarships, she says she wants spend time looking for who is less well served [by ERC] and what can be done about it ”, in terms of geographic disparities between Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the differences between disciplines. The way grants are awarded for molecular biology research may not be appropriate for philosophy, for example, where research teams tend to be smaller, she says.

Borrell-Damián says she hopes Leptin can use her position to advocate for Swiss participation in the ERC. Swiss researchers have been among the most successful in securing ERC grants in the past, but the European Commission has excluded Switzerland from its list of non-EU countries it considers candidates for membership to Horizon Europe, after the country withdrew from talks on a new trade deal. Leptin says Swiss participation is a concern “because they are good colleagues”. She adds, We giveWe don’t consider countries to be important, we consider science to matter, so it would be much better for them to be there, and I hope that’s a political issue to be solved.

LeptinHer research has covered developmental biology and immunology, and she says Science itis most proud of her work on epithelial folding during gastrulation, the process by which a fertilized egg takes the form of an embryo. It was a totally new discovery, ”she says. “We knew a lot of other aspects of development at the time, but how the form is achieved was not known.”