Maria Leptin takes up post as head of ERC, promising ‘long term’ drive to get more money for basic research

26 Oct 2021 | News

Budget should double to ensure Europe can fund all excellent science Leptin says, as she takes the reins at the European Research Council on 1 November

Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council. Photo: European Research Council,

The new president of the European Research Council (ERC) wants to see the budget doubled to increase its ability to fund excellent science and says the agency must remain independent, setting its own direction without pressure from policymakers who want to see an increased focus on climate and digital technologies.

In pushing for more money for basic research, Maria Leptin can be seen to be picking up the mantle of her predecessors who have called on the EU to boost its budget to meet the demand for fundamental science grants. But the message has been falling on deaf ears, with member states refusing to allocate significant increases for the EU’s science budget.

Currently, the ERC has only enough money to fund around 12% of ERC applicants. Leptin argues at least another 10% of applications are as good as the winners. Turning down half of excellent proposals each time is painful, she said. “What I am saying is that doubling the budget would cover that, alleviate that pain,” Leptin told Science|Business.

Leptin acknowledges such an increase won’t be possible in the next few years, but it could be delivered by 2028, when the EU rolls out its next multiannual research and innovation programme. “That will require long-term groundwork, this is a long-term project,” she said.

The ERC’s brief is to fund basic research in any field, judging only the excellence of the proposal. It’s been running since 2007 and likes to boast it has awarded grants to nine Nobel prize winners. For the next seven years, the agency has €16 billion to deliver on its mission.

But Leptin is already thinking ahead to 2028. “The challenge is to try to get everyone to see that Europe needs to put more money into basic research,” she said.

That shows serious ambition, given the previous ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, spent the latter part of his tenure defending the 2021 - 2027 budget from cuts by EU leaders.  

Bourguignon was president of the ERC between 2014 and 2019 but came back to the ERC as interim president in 2020, shortly after his successor, Mauro Ferrari resigned within months of taking up the role.

In August, Bourguignon left the office for a second time - but not before calling on the EU and member states to ensure there is sufficient funding for bottom-up research and warning that research should not be “subordinated only to achieving current EU policies and priorities”.

ERC jealously guards its autonomy from the European Commission and the leeway that provides to let scientists decide what topics they want to pursue. For Leptin, Bourguignon’s parting words had to be said. Autonomy and the funding of bottom-up research are the most important things about the ERC, she said. “I think one cannot remind people often enough.”

ERC’s approach has demonstrably been a success and Leptin is adamant she will defend the bottom-up, excellence-driven philosophy. Ferrari’s three-month stint as president ended after he tried to introduce top-down calls to the programme, and Leptin said it is clear that if there is a need for top-down fundamental research funding, other European programmes should be used.

That would leave the way clear for ERC to continue fund cutting-edge ideas from their infancy and not be horizon scanning for the immediate real-world impact of scientific discoveries. “We just have enough examples to illustrate that that is very short-sighted policy,” said Leptin.

Inherited problems

Leptin inherits the ERC with a set plan and budget for the next six years, but the legacy problems persist. The first one is low success rates: the initial batch of ERC calls under Horizon Europe had similar success rates to Horizon 2020. The new seven-year budget is bigger than its predecessor but competition for grants remains high.

Leptin has experience of the grim realities of demand being so out of kilter with supply. “I’ve chaired panels and the number of fantastic proposals you see is overwhelming,” she said. “Some of the most eminent people don’t get grants because there’s not enough money to go around.”

But there is no short-term fix. Evidently, the problem is not the level of interest in winning an ERC grant, but the lack of funds. Until European leaders and citizens realise the importance of financing fundamental research, the issue will persist.

There are other long-running issues, including uneven participation of researchers from less prosperous EU regions and a male-dominated grantee list.

Fixing these, Leptin says, requires long-term thinking. The ERC judges each application on its scientific merits. How many grants go to each country depends on the number of good applications submitted from that country. Therefore, to even out the geographical imbalance, more researchers need to come up with excellent proposals.

“The situations on the ground will have to change, and that can only change if the people on the ground realise that research is important. And that will only happen if the citizens of Europe recognise that,” said Leptin.

Despite these legacy issues, Leptin does not foresee needing to overhaul how the agency operates. It’s all about small changes. For one, she wants to introduce a training programme for the chairs of the ERC’s selection panels on how to act as chair. Leptin said ERC panels are already very fair but “Chairing a panel is not easy, and it can have an amazing effect on the outcome of the selection.”

Communicating science

For Leptin, one route to building greater appreciation of what ERC does and fostering a more positive attitude towards science, is through better communication about the successes of ERC grantees.

One of the first things on the to-do list is trying to connect more grant holders with journalists, bloggers and filmmakers who are interested in science but lack access. “We don't need to do it all ourselves, but we need to establish means for people who are experts in communication,” said Leptin. “One thing is to really get to journalists and professional communicators and give them a better access to researchers, better understanding of how research works.”

Leptin has experience running similar communication campaigns as president of the European Molecular Biology Organisation, where she served for the last decade.

Communicating successes, Leptin hopes, will help ERC make a case for higher funding. The agency already has the Parliament behind its back. The next frontier is EU member states.

ERC’s value lies in enabling researchers to fiddle with new ideas and approaches without demanding problem fixes or prescribing policy goals. As Leptin points out, ten years ago, people would have had little idea of the possible applications of dissecting the nuts and bolts of messenger RNA. But this basic research was poised for translation and resulted in the break neck development of multiple COVID-19 vaccines. Stories like this, she says, must be highlighted in defense of a strong budget and the ERC’s political autonomy.

Leptin’s term runs for four years, until 1 October 2025, with the possibility to renew once.

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