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Berlin biology center hires new chief

Max Delbruck Center gives up search for younger, outside candidate -- to the surprise of some scientists

By | April 20, 2006

Two years after Walter Birchmeier was named interim Scientific Director of Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) in Berlin-Buch, the MDC Board of Trustees has finally given up the search for an outside, younger candidate and removed the word ?interim? from Birchmeier?s title -- a move that surprised some German scientists. MDC made the announcement this month, saying that Birchmeier, 62, who had been deputy scientific director since 1998, had been given a three-year contract effective January 1. When Birchmeier was named interim head in April 2004, MDC made clear it was actively seeking younger candidates outside of Germany, advertising the position in Science and Nature magazines as a five-year appointment, with a reappointment possible. In an interview with The Scientist, Birchmeier confirmed that MDC had first offered the job to younger candidates, noting that ?about a half a dozen? people had turned down the offer. MDC?s first choice for the job had been a German scientist who had lived for years in the U.S., he admitted. ?He came very close to taking the job,? Birchmeier said. But in the end, the scientist declined MDC?s offer after his university made a generous counteroffer. Another top candidate had been a non-German speaking Belgian scientist, also based in the US, Birchmeier said. Birchmeier, a Swiss national who has worked in the US and is widely acknowledged as a top scientist in molecular biology, recently appeared as a featured speaker at the Keystone Symposium on Wnt and beta-catenin signaling. Birchmeier said he had not actively sought the top job. ?I am happy as a scientist.? Nonetheless, he noted that he has already led MDC for the past two years and before that had been deputy director for six years. ?I am confident I can do the job,? he said, adding his number one priority would be to hire top scientists. "My goal is to promote excellence in science and you do that mostly by recruiting good people." Helmut Schwarz, a vice president of the German Science Foundation (DFG) and team leader at the Institute of Chemistry Technical University Berlin, told The Scientist that he was surprised -- but not disappointed -- by Birchmeier?s permanent appointment. ?MDC is an ambitious institute and was searching outside of Germany for a director. So, yes, if they spent two years looking without finding someone new, that could be viewed as a disappointment.? Schwarz said German research institutions -- with the notable exception of the Max Planck Society -- face two major hurdles when recruiting outside of Germany. The first is salary, since with directors in the U.S. sometimes earn twice as much as they would in Germany. The second is what he described as Germany?s ?consensus? society. ?Scientific directors here have to ask too many committees, too many people,? he said. ?You cannot shape an institution how you want.? Hans Schöler, director cell and developmental biology at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, also told The Scientist he admired Birchmeier, but was disappointed the MDC couldn?t follow through with its goal of hiring a younger, non-Germany-based scientist. ?It is not a disappointment because of Walter (Birchmeier). Walter is a great scientist. It is a disappointment because they could not attract someone from outside.? Jürgen Mlynek, president of Germany?s Helmholtz Association, of which MDC is one of 15 research centers, told The Scientist he would not comment on whether others had been offered the MDC job before Birchmeier. However, he acknowledged that the search for top international scientists to lead institutes is ?not easy.? And Birchmeier was a strong candidate, he added. ?With Walter Birchmeier, we have a very, very good scientific director.? Ned Stafford nstafford@the-scientist.com Clarification (posted April 25): When this story was originally posted, it implied that Birchmeier was born in Germany. He is Swiss. The Scientist regrets the error. Links within this article ?Prof. Walter Birchmeier new scientific Director of the Max Delbrück Center,? MDC, April 6, 2006. http://www.mdc-berlin.de/englisch/about_the_mdc/public_relations/press_releases_2006/pr_2006.htm N. Stafford, ?MDC still seeking new chief,? The Scientist, April 19, 2004. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22119/ Walter Birchmeier publications http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?db=pubmed&cmd=Search&itool=pubmed_Abstract&term=%22Birchmeier+W%22%5BAuthor%5D Keystone Symposium: Wnt and beta-Catenin Signaling in Development and Disease http://www.keystonesymposia.org/Meetings/ViewMeetings.cfm?MeetingID=810 Helmut Schwarz http://www.dfg.de/en/dfg_profile/structure/statutory_bodies/executive_board/members_executive_board/helmut_schwarz.html Max Planck Society http://www.mpg.de/english/portal/index.html Hans Schöler http://www.mpi-muenster.mpg.de/institu/profilee.htm Jürgen Mlynek http://www.helmholtz.de/en/Who_we_are/Organisation/President.html
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