The European Research Council looks for a chief executive, releases launch strategy
By Stephen Pincock | May 26, 2006
With only days to go until applications close for the post of secretary general of the European Research Council, scientists in the European Union (EU) are watching closely to see who will be appointed to the challenging position.
The head of the new EU science funding body will need to have substantial scientific and political clout, plus a dedication to funding based on peer review, senior EU science figures told The Scientist. "I think there are dozens of excellent people who have a good combination of science and scientific policy who could do the job," said Frederic Sgard, vice-president of Euroscience.
The ERC has been a major talking-point in EU science for years. It is envisaged as an independent funding body that will support fundamental science on the basis of peer-review, not the matrix of social and political agendas that constrain other forms of EU funding.
In late April, the ERC's 22-member scientific council announced it was seeking candidates for the job of secretary general -- who will, in effect, be the agency's chief executive officer, reporting to the scientific council and working with a director nominated by the European Commission. The deadline for applications is May 31.
The scientific council said in a statement that they want to appoint someone with a balance of scientific stature and policy clout. The successful candidate will need to have a proven track record at the top of a peer-review based funding agency.
Identifying someone who meets all those criteria will not be easy, said Neil Williams, senior science officer at the European Science Foundation. "It's quite a challenging job," he told The Scientist. "He or she is clearly going to have to work with a lot of stakeholders in research, including the commission and big national research agencies."
Another important priority must be the candidate's willingness to insist on funding according to excellence alone, Williams added. "If he or she isn't able to do that, the scientific community's hopes for [the ERC] will be disappointed and its reputation damaged."
One leading candidate among this potentially crowded field may be the molecular biologist Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, outgoing president of Germany's national research funder, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).
"Germany is applying pressure to have either the secretary general or the director of the executive agency," said Luc Van Dyck, executive coordinator of the European Life Sciences Forum. Winnacker is a prime candidate for the job and fits many important criteria, he added, particularly given his long advocacy for the creation of the ERC, due begin operations in 2007.
Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate from Cancer Research UK, commented that he had been impressed with the way he's seen the DFG, under Winnacker, deal with peer review for grant applications. "I think they just did it right," he said.
Another thing in Winnacker's favor is the fact his nine-year tenure as president of the DFG ends in December. "A key consideration is when the person is available," Van Dyck said. "The current head of any funding body will probably need a year before they can start, but the ERC needs to appoint someone soon. Someone who is readily available will be hard to find."
Winnacker declined to comment for this story.
In April, the ERC publicly released its launch strategy, which specifies that ERC funding will be awarded "on the basis of excellence." Its initial funding mechanism will focus on helping young scientists set up their own research teams in Europe, while a secondary mechanism will focus on more senior researchers. This is good news, said Sgard. "I would definitely say that they young scientists are the priority," he said. "That is where we have a problem in Europe."
More broadly, scientists are pleased with the way the agency is developing, Van Dyck said. "I think that the scientific community is astonished that it is going so fast and that it is so on track. They are also happy that the scientific council has been consulting them. I think this is seen as very positive." Tim Hunt agreed, saying he had "great faith" in the ERC.
Still, there are numerous hurdles still ahead. Crucially, the agency needs to find a way to balance power within its three-headed leadership. The scientific council, the secretary general, and the director will all have roles to play, and "great care needs to be taken when these people are chose so there is no conflict," said Van Dyck.
Links within this article
Call for applications for the post of ERC Secretary General
J. Burgermeister, "ERC scientific council named," The Scientist, July 19, 2005.
European Life Sciences Forum
X. Bosch, "Concern over ERC funding," The Scientist, July 26, 2005.
The ERC Launch Strategy
In the 1930s, parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine aimed to use scientific methods to confirm the existence of extrasensory perception, but faced criticisms of dubious analyses and irreproducible results.