ERC president Maria Leptin shares her top advice for researchers

12 Jan 2022

Maria Leptin. Image: EMBL PhotoLab

Maria Leptin discusses what she hopes to achieve as president of the European Research Council, the critical role of science communication, and what researchers need to know when applying for grants.

This week, the European Research Council (ERC) awarded its first research grants under Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme and the successor to Horizon 2020.

Horizon Europe is the largest ever funding instrument for research and innovation in Europe and it was launched last year with a budget of €95.5bn from 2021 to 2027. Of that budget, the ERC represents around 17pc, or €16bn.

However, as is often the case with science and research funding, ERC president Maria Leptin said more money should be going into research.

“If there was twice as much money, not a penny would be wasted,” she told “If we funded twice as many grants … it would be good for Europe.”

‘We need to get away from the idea of always looking beady-eyed at whether a piece of basic science may help’

Leptin was appointed president of the ERC in June 2021, with her term officially starting last November.

Prior to that, Leptin served as director of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) for more than a decade. She also established a research group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, studying the biophysics of how cells change their shapes as well as how cells recognise and respond to danger.

Now, as president of the ERC, Leptin hopes to protect all the elements of the organisation that best serve the scientists it selects and supports.

“The ERC is an organisation that is working at the top level of excellence both in terms of the processes within the agency and of course in terms of the scientists they support, and I think that’s something that has to be supported.”

Supporting research

As well as selecting the best scientists, Leptin said the processes and procedures need to be appropriate in order to get the most out of the research that comes from these scientists.

Protecting these procedures and ensuring they continue to evolve so that they are always fit for purpose is, in her view, her most important objective. “I can’t neglect that, even if that’s not a glamorous goal. But I think it’s a good goal.”

Her second aim is to continue to make a case for funding research, particularly as the quality of proposals – and therefore the competition for funding – goes up.

“The proposals are so wonderful and so exciting and so original and so doable,” she said. “So it would be necessary, I feel, to convince both more citizens and political leaders that that is so, that more money should go into this kind of frontier research, basic research.”

Of course, convincing both the public and political leaders that more money should be spent requires a serious science communication play – especially when, as Leptin said, people can’t be told they have to spend the money, “they have to want it”.

In terms of funding basic research versus applied research, she said it’s hard to know what the right balance is. But it’s vital to remember that there is no applied research without basic research feeding the pipeline first. Luckily, she believes the pandemic has helped people see this.

“Many people have recognised that all the rapid responses and getting vaccines and sequencing all the things and tracing the virus all depended on pre-existing knowledge in fields that have nothing to do with pandemics,” she said.

“I think we need to get away from the idea of always looking beady-eyed at whether a piece of basic science may help.”

Fighting misinformation

Science communication isn’t just important from a funding point of view, as we’ve seen over the past two years. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up an onslaught of dangerous misinformation and disinformation that scientists have had to scramble to debunk.

I asked Leptin her thoughts on how such a problem could be tackled. “Do you think anybody has an answer to that?” she laughed. Of course there is no magic bullet to such a major problem, however she did say it requires a lot of patience and it can’t be from the top down.

“If your neighbours, who are doubtful about whether they should get vaccinated or not, have politicians tell them they must, that’s not the way. That can be done in a crisis, but long term it needs understanding and this has to start in schools,” she said.

Leptin added that there is a vicious circle around scientific misinformation because, while most citizens actually trust science according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, many discussions can be dominated by those who don’t trust science if they are more vocal and get more attention online.

In a study published just last week, a team of researchers suggested that Twitter’s algorithm disproportionately favours politically right-wing content over left-wing content.

“They don’t need to be as careful as we the scientists or as thoughtful journalists in trying to explain, they can just spout,” said Leptin.

“It’s not a problem that the ERC or I will solve. But talking to the citizens, finding ways of reaching them, that’s something we’re thinking about internally.”

Advice for researchers

The competition for research grants is fierce and it appears to be getting tougher every year. The first ERC Horizon Europe grants announced this week gave a total of €619m to almost 400 researchers – but this was out of about 4,000 proposals.

This means that career prospects for young researchers can be seen as extremely difficult. Leptin said she has seen this from her own experience running a lab at one of Europe’s top-level research institutions, witnessing many young researchers deciding not to pursue an academic career.

‘Don’t say “groundbreaking” or “leading”. All these adjectives, we’ve seen them all before’

“Some of them look at us, the more senior people, and just say, ‘I don’t want that kind of life’. So that’s a big challenge.”

She said it’s important for young researchers to see that when they start a PhD, it’s OK to look at other areas of human endeavours within an academic career. “We need to see that doing a PhD and a postdoc doesn’t need to mean that you become the principal investigator. And then maybe we will see more of a sort of spreading of people and that’s wonderful.”

On a positive note, the latest round of grants included the highest ever share of women recipients in an ERC call. Women researchers won around 43pc of grants, an increase from 37pc in 2020.

“It’s a huge relief and I can also say from my past position as the EMBO director, we’ve seen in the membership elections women doing extremely well. So I think there’s a big recognition now that teams have to change and they’re changing.”

So, what is the top piece of advice the ERC president can give to budding researchers who might be looking towards the next funding call? Honesty is key.

“If you want to find out how the basic principles of a neuron works, or the connectivity in the brain with how it finds its path or whatever, you say that and you say why that’s a problem. You don’t say: ‘And I can cure Alzheimer’s.’

“Be brutally honest, because your work is going to be reviewed by people who’ve heard this over and over and over again and they can see through the pretence or the posturing. Total honesty is recognised and seen by committees and is appreciated.

“No hyperbole, just truth. Don’t say ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘leading’. All these adjectives, we’ve seen them all before. You don’t make a joke funny by laughing about it yourself, you make a joke funny by being deadpan. The same is true for grant application.”

She also said it’s important that researchers be meticulous, take their time and discuss their idea with colleagues. “There’s nothing more fun and useful than to discuss project ideas with one’s peers,” she added. “Do it as early as you can and then do it repeatedly – get input, get input, get input.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic