EURAXESS Worldwide had the opportunity to meet ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin and ask her some questions about the uniqueness of European Research Council grants for researchers worldwide, and her advice for future applicants.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, about your background as a scientist and your role in your current position as the president of the ERC?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: I am originally trained as an immunologist. I then switched to development biology. I am a biologist and geneticist. And I have been working in that field ever since, and still actually have a small lab in Heidelberg and a small lab in Cologne where I spent my last 12 years. And I have been ERC president since November 2021 and will sadly have to give up my active science now.
As the president of the ERC, you interact with a lot of scientists and see different scientific environments and countries.
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: Yes, indeed. […] There are a lot of different fields because the ERC funds not only biology, even not only the natural sciences, but the whole breadth of everything. Social sciences, philosophy, astronomy, economy management - via the physical and engineering sciences. And, of course, the life sciences. So that is particularly interesting because I get to talk to people in fields that I normally would not have.
We know the ERC is the Europe's top funding agency for excellent research, but maybe not everyone knows exactly what the ERC has to offer for them. What would you say is the most unique facets that ERC offers to researchers?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: The ERC is part of Europe's science and research funding. It is part of what is called Horizon Europe - the funding program for the current EU Research & Innovation framework program of seven years. A lot of funding also goes to other activities to training of young researchers to infrastructures, etc.
The ERC has 17 billion out of the 95 billion EUR budget over seven years. And that is dedicated exclusively to fundamental research, to basic curiosity driven PI driven research. And that is one thing that characterizes it. Hence it is entirely bottom up, no predetermined programs, no predetermined topics.  The proposals that will be funded are selected exclusively on the criteria of individual excellence. That is really what sets it apart from all other Horizon funding programs.
How important is it for ERC to have researchers outside of Europe to be involved?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: It is not [a matter of what is] important for the ERC or not. It is important for research to have international interactions. We know this as individual researchers, we interact with colleagues from all around the world, those of us who use infrastructures or libraries go where they are, the physicists or the structural biologists go where the beam lines are, where the accelerators are, those who need archives or libraries go where they are. […]
Many programs explicitly fund cross border activities, their partnering programs, or mobility programs. The ERC doesn't do that. The ERC funds investigator driven fundamental research, full stop. However, of course it also allows collaboration across borders. Any PI who has a project they want to do and have such a case where the ideal colleague or needed field work is abroad, and have partners in that country, that is all fundable. And that is all supported in addition in the so-called synergy grants, which are also bottom up. […] This is the way the ERC supports and funds international research by allowing it, but not by demanding it in any way.
Would you say that the priority for funding is given to younger researchers, or funding researchers of all stages and all career levels?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: First of all, it is research of all stages, in all career levels. And there is really no restriction of any kind in the way the scientific council […] sets the strategy. There is an agency of 500 people who actually run these evaluation boards and do the finances and do the legal support. And then there is a scientific council of 22 people of which I am the president and they set strategy. And one way they set strategy is by deciding how the money is allocated. And there are several calls, several levels of funding. One is for starting grantees that is for the first seven years post PhD. The next is the consolidator grants. They go up to 12 years and then the rest covers the rest of the career up to retirement and beyond if you wish.
What the scientific council decides is how the funds are split up between these calls. It is their view that the younger ones should be promoted more. And so the first two youngest cohorts get two thirds of the money and the oldest cohort only one third.  So there is a really strong emphasis on the young.
The ERC very strongly promotes fundamental research as well as frontier research. What does frontier research mean, and how is the ERC contributing to this?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: What is normal research? First of all, frontier research is also normal research. Sometimes people differentiate frontier research from incremental research where incremental means you are only making small steps. I want to put in a plug here for incremental research. It is absolutely essential that we do this.
If you want to make a great leap, you need a solid basis from which to start, and who is going to establish that. What does it consist of, that solid basis? It is the research that is being done everywhere. You also cannot really plan to discover something because you can put yourself in a good position to discover something, but you have got to do solid research as a basis for any big leaps. So of course, if you say that, then you can say, well, how does the ERC select their research? If it is all the same? Well, it's not all the same. Some ideas are just more exciting.
The question is if the ERC says it funds frontier research or breakthrough findings or high risk research. How does that differ? How do we select it if it is all the same? Well, in a sense, not all research is the same. If a researcher has been studying a problem, let us say an animal model X, and now says, I want to continue, I also want to study an animal model Y that is maybe necessary, because it is important that we know how it functions in this other animal, but that is unlikely to be exciting or breakthrough. So that is not inspiring. It is necessary, but not inspiring.
What the ERC panels look for are really ideas that go beyond the current, new openings, not for people to continue what they are doing anyway, but to use their knowledge and take inspiration from somewhere to do something new and exciting. That can be a risk because you never know whether the new is going to work out. That is why it is called high risk, high gain. But high risk means also that there may be little gain. So that is what the panels look out for. And it is a case by case - you cannot define it in a general way how that is decided.
When we speak of risk we also need to think about the ethical implications of research. So how important is that aspect also for the ERC?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: Well, obviously highly important. All research that is done is checked for ethics. They are initially screened to see if there are any issues at all. I mean, if you want to prove a mathematical theorem, there is not much ethics in there, you just do it or don't do it. And you sit in your office with your pen and paper and do it, but practically everything that's close to medical research has to be checked. […] A lot of the social sciences that involves human subjects will be checked, animal research, stem, cell research, and embryonic research et cetera. There is a lot that needs to be taken into account.
And of course, many of these are governed by national rules or by institutional rules. All that is checked and taken into account, and it would be completely unthinkable to fund anything that doesn't abide by all these rules.
The recent pandemic influenced researchers lives, work, and international collaboration. What the lessons the ERC has learned from the pandemic when it comes to international research, mobility, and collaboration, and also transfer of knowledge?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: Of course, it has affected researchers, especially those working in the experimental sciences who could not go to the lab. Their brutal break of their work or others who could not go to archives or libraries. The ERC has taken that into account by allowing applicants to put into their CV how their productivity was affected, so that panels can take that into account when they judge the productivity of researchers over these past two years. […]
We have all learned in the pandemic that some things actually do not require traveling and that some interactions work very nicely with zoom.  We have also learned that some things do not work so well. Being at a scientific conference where you have an extended discussion about a talk over lunch, or in a coffee break, or in the evening over a beer, that is not easily replaced on zoom. […] We are seeing that people are really keen and eager to meet again. I think real scientific conferences meetings, they will resurface. However, shorter meetings like just discussing a paper for a while and a collaborative paper where one is in Munich and the others in Paris, you will just do that over zoom. You no longer need to travel for that.
At the ERC, of course, there is a lot of travel because the panels come in to do the evaluations and candidates are interviewed and they used to be flown in. What the ERC has decided is that the panel meetings are important because they contain all these components of a difficult discussion that was hard to finish in the panel. […] The panel meetings will go back to live, but the interviewee can stay home and do it from the comfort of their own office. So that is the practical outcome.
What would you like to give as an advice for the next generation of applicants?
ERC President Prof. Maria Leptin: I say this to all applicants: The most important thing when you read a grant is not to think that when you finished it, you have done the best you could. You may have done the best you could, but get colleagues to tear it apart, rip it apart, criticize it, look at it from a different perspective because your grant will be looked at from a broad perspective, and you may not have thought of everything. In fact, you cannot possibly have thought of everything.
Get critique, critique, critique, critique. Give yourself enough time to write, be original, be creative, but get input. And this goes also for the final step. If you are invited for an interview, do not wing it, practice, practice, practice. So really the preparation, is the most important. If you want to continue to do what you have always done, it is probably not a good idea to apply to the ERC. You have got to be original.
Professor Maria Leptin is the President of the European Research Council (ERC). She is a renowned developmental biologist and immunologist. Prior to her current position, Professor Leptin served as Director of EMBO from 2010-2021. She established a research group in Heidelberg at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which studies the mechanics of shape determination during development.