German biologist Maria Leptin appointed new ERC president

30 Jun 2021 | News

After a year of uncertainty, Maria Leptin is set to lead the European Research Council from October. The new president has dedicated her career to basic research in molecular biology and has a long track record in science administration

Maria Leptin, the new president of the European Research Council. Photo: European Union

The long wait for a new European Research Council president is finally over, with the European Commission appointing the head of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), Maria Leptin as president.

Leptin, a leading German biologist, will take up the position on 1 October, replacing interim president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, who stepped back into the post following the surprise resignation of Mauro Ferrari in April 2020, after only three months in the job.

As the fifth president of the scientific council, Leptin says she is committed to honouring ERC’s ethos of supporting only excellent science. She hopes to engage under-represented countries and communities to help them get better access to grants, while continuing to evolve and critically assess the agency’s work.

“The ERC needs stability, but at the same time cannot afford to stand still,” Leptin said. “Stability means not only financial stability, but also unwavering commitment to the founding principles of excellence and curiosity-driven, frontier research across the whole range of knowledge.”

Robert-Jan Smits, a founding father of the ERC and the Commission’s former director general for research, called Leptin’s appointment an “interesting choice.” Acknowledging her excellent track record in carrying out basic research, Smits said she faces quite a few challenges, with success rates for ERC applicants plummeting, and as the Commission pushes for more participation from central and eastern Europe.

At the same time Switzerland, a key friend of the ERC, is facing up to being excluded from EU research. Leptin completed her PhD in Switzerland, in what was then the Basel Institute of Immunology, a research lab funded by Swiss pharma company Roche.

She maintained her dedication to basic science, going on to do post doc research at the famous MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, and after a stint at the University of California, San Francisco, becoming group leader at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen in 1989 and subsequently professor at the Institute of Genetics, University of Cologne in 1994.

Leptin became director of EMBO in January 2010.

ERC in Horizon Europe

ERC’s brief is to support the best scientists at different stages of their careers, from young researchers to leaders in their fields. Earlier this year, the agency awarded its 10,000 grant. As an EU success story and after a long fight for more money, ERC began the new seven year Horizon Europe programme with a budget of €16 billion, 22% more than in the previous EU research programme, Horizon 2020.

Leptin is no stranger to the ERC, having chaired one of its life sciences grant evaluation panels since 2008. She also has years of experience managing research organisations, having held various roles in academic administration from 1997 onwards, cementing this experience in the last decade as head of EMBO, an association of more than 1,800 life scientists.

Leptin runs a research group studying the mechanics of what determines the shape of cells during development at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. She also leads a research group at the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne.

Leptin’s term will run for four years, until 1 October 2025, with a possibility to renew once.

The 22-member ERC scientific council welcomed Leptin’s appointment saying, “Her strong scientific and managerial backgrounds, her long-term involvement with European issues, her pioneering role in the scientific community and her familiarity with European institutions are all highly appreciated.”

University lobby groups were also positive about the appointment. “Maria Leptin is clearly an outstanding scientist and she will have the support of the scientific community in building on the outstanding work of Jean-Pierre Bourguignon and his predecessors to strengthen the ERC as the most successful funder of breakthrough science,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

Similarly, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities said, “Of course we welcome Maria’s appointment and look forward to an excellent collaboration, certainly in a period where the ERC must be able to continue to grow and to deliver the excellent research that we have seen over the past decade and more.”

The search for a new ERC president started almost exactly a year ago, after Ferrari left the post only three months of his four-year term.

At the time, the ERC did not go into details, but as Ferrari made clear in his resignation letter, there was a row over his failure to convince the ERC to set up a research programme dedicated to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The scientific council argued the ERC’s legislation only allows the agency to fund research based on scientific quality, regardless of the topic, while Ferrari wanted to issue top down calls for research into the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Following Ferrari’s resignation, French mathematician Bourguignon, who had served as the president of the ERC for six years prior to Ferrari’s appointment, stepped in.

Bourguignon took up the position at a decisive time, with the ERC facing potential budget cuts during the intense negotiations between member states on the new seven-year EU budget.

Leptin acknowledged Bourguignon’s role in defending basic research in Horizon Europe and setting the tone for the ERC for the next seven years. “I will start my first term with implementing the work programmes that Jean-Pierre prepared, and build bridges between the ERC’s outputs and the political priorities of the European Commission, Council and Parliament,” she said.

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