ERC gets seasoned leader

Former German Research Foundation president to lead the European Research Council

By | September 6, 2006

One of Europe's most respected science administrators, Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker of the German Research Foundation (DFG), has been chosen as the first secretary-general of the new funding agency, the European Research Council (ERC). His appointment has been applauded by senior figures in the scientific community. "He's the right person for the job," said Peter Tindemans, convenor of the science policy working group at Euroscience. "I think it's a very good choice. It will give much confidence, I think, to the European research community that the ERC will live up to its promise." 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 research on the basis of peer-review, not the matrix of social and political agendas that constrain other forms of EU funding. Winnacker, 65, had been the frontrunner for the secretary-general's post. He had already announced his intention to step down as president of the DFG in December after nine years at its helm, and has been a vocal proponent of the need for the ERC to be independent and focused on quality. Tindemans said Winnacker's reputation for careful diplomacy will be a valuable asset as the ERC finds its place within Europe's science funding landscape. He also noted that the German molecular biologist is known for focusing on high quality standards. "One of the big challenges will be to maintain credibility among the scientific community," he told The Scientist. Frank Gannon, executive director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, echoed Tindemans' views. Winnacker has tremendous experience at running a large funding agency and is a highly respected scientist, he told The Scientist. "This combination of scientific credibility and executive skills make him an excellent choice for the start-up phase of the ERC. He is someone that can hold his own in both scientific and political circles, and this is a rare quality," he said. Europe's universities also applauded Winnacker's appointment. "As former president of the DFG, the European Universities Association is very sure he'll be responsive to the needs of universities," said John Smith, deputy secretary general of the EUA. Ultimately, the ERC will have a budget of 1 billion a year with which to fund projects across the research spectrum, chosen on the basis of peer review. But in the early years, its budget will be significantly tighter, noted Frédéric Sgard, vice president of Euroscience. "The biggest challenge in my opinion will be to fit the objectives of the ERC within the funding it will have in those early phases," he told The Scientist. For the first few years, the group will have to restrict what is funded and make difficult choices about where to channel funds, Sgard said. Mark Walport, head of the Wellcome Trust, also mentioned the challenge of the budget. "It is good news that the ERC has such an excellent Council and has been able to recruit Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker as its first secretary general," he told The Scientist. "The important thing now is that the ERC gets a decent budget so that it can really make a difference to the support of European science." As secretary-general, Winnacker will serve as the liaison between the chair of the ERC's 22-member scientific council, Fotis Kafatos, and the European Commission. He will hold the post until July 2009, the ERC said, after which he will hand the reins to Spanish economist Andreu Mas-Colell, who will remain in the post until December 2011. Stephen Pincock Links within this article ERC secretary general announced Peter Tindemans A. Scott, "ERC gains support," The Scientist, October 8, 2003. S. Pincock, "Who will head the ERC?" The Scientist, May 26, 2006. Frank Gannon John Smith Frederic Sgard Mark Walport

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