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Julie Gould: 00:05

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. In 2019, we did a series of episodes on funding for scientists, where we talked to people about all aspects of funding grants — from the preparation needed in advance to planning for that interview, should you get one. This episode is a bonus one for that series.

Jack Leeming, one of the Nature Careers editors, had the opportunity to speak with Maria Leptin, the scientist who has been the President of the European Research Council, or ERC, since 2019. Maria didn’t envisage working in this role. Like many, her career path took unexpected twists and turns before she got there.

In this interview, Jack asks Maria about her career path, what it’s like leaving the bench, as it were, to work in administration. They also talk about how the ERC is structured, how they review and fund grants, and also the difficulty of receiving a “no thanks” from the funders. But Maria also shares some insight on how to pick yourself up after and to carry on. Enjoy.

Jack Leeming: 01:14

I wondered if you could start with just telling us a little bit about your career and maybe a little bit of background to your role at the ERC if that’s okay.

Maria Leptin: 01:23

I’m a biologist and a geneticist. I initially started out in immunology, working on B cells and activation of B cells and then switch to developmental biology for my postdoc, which I did in England, at the LMB [the Laboratory of Molecular Biology] in Cambridge, where I started to work on drisophilia. Developmental biology was a huge booming field at the time, and then I became an independent group leader at the Max Planck Institute in Tubingen where I really started working on my own topics, especially the control of how shapes are formed during development, became a professor at the University of Cologne, where I finally moved together with my husband and our children, and then took on a science administrative function as the director of EMBO [the European Molecular Biology Organization] in 2010, which was a position I held, and during which I was still able to do my own research I held for 12 years, and then finally joined the ERC as the president after having been involved in ERC work as a panel member and panel chair.

Jack Leeming: 02:35

Can you tell me a little bit about the structure of the ERC generally?

Maria Leptin: 02:39

The ERC, of course, is a funding organization; an EU level funding organization funded entirely by taxpayers’ money, it was established in 2007 with the aim of funding fundamental research — frontier research — from applications that are researcher driven, and are selected exclusively on the basis of excellence.

The projects have to be creative, original, with a promise of potentially groundbreaking research. It consists of an agency of some 500 people that are responsible for the peer review — so organizing and running the panels that select the research, that select the successful proposals from all the ones that come in — they do the finance, they do the granting, they do the legal aspects. So that’s part of the structure.

And the other part and this is unique and unusual for EU and EC agencies is that there’s an independent Scientific Council, composed of 22 leading researchers across the entire breadth of academic research: social sciences, humanities, physics, engineering, life sciences, etc.

Twenty two leading researchers from all over the world who set the strategy. So these people think about how research assessment should be done, to what calls, how much money should be allocated, etc. So that’s the structure of the ERC: an executive agency, a Scientific Council. And I finally joined the ERC at the end of 2021. So I’ve been there for nearly two years now, as the President.

Jack Leeming: 04:29

How is it? Do you like it?

Maria Leptin: 04:30

It’s interesting, it’s very different from what I’ve done before. I’ve never worked so close with politicians and people in politics. So that’s interesting. We’re, you know, we report to the commission. It’s interesting because you meet many new people, but what I particularly like about it, is that the ERC is responsible for all academic endeavor and research. So not just life sciences, which I’ve seen for my whole life, but also humanities, social sciences, physics, astrophysics, mathematics, all these things that I know and cherish, but I haven’t had direct contact to. So that’s good fun. I get to occasionally sit in on panel discussions, panel interviews. I thought I’d spend a lot more time doing that. Unfortunately, I can’t. But that’s what I particularly like — I really see the entire breadth of curiosity-driven research.

Jack Leeming: 05:39

I imagine you’d like to step back from your own research a little bit. Is that the case?

Maria Leptin: 05:44

Yes, indeed, that is very painful. Because having done research for over 40 years that’s where my passion is. That’s where my interest is. And it’s also what connects you very much to the real world. Research doesn’t lie, you deal with reality. It’s not random. It’s the truth. So I’m still finishing up work, we still have a few publications in the pipeline. So I’m still doing that with lab members who are still in research and who are finishing that up. So that’s nice. But it’s completely impossible to have the brain time to do that creatively and productively while at the same time being president of the ERC. You win some you lose some. This one I lose, and it’s painful. But that’s the decision I’ve made.

Jack Leeming: 06:38

I think that’s a good philosophy. You mentioned politicians earlier, and that you’re working with them. I guess that means advocating for more funding for researchers or does it mean more than that?

Maria Leptin: 06:51

It means all sorts of things. So there’s politicians like the commissioners, there’s politicians, like the members of parliament, and then there’s the administration. So we interact with all of them.

With regard to the commissioners, for example, ideally, politicians make the decisions based on facts. And of course, the good ones do. And so we do provide politicians with facts that come out of the frontline research that the ERC grantees do. For example, on migration, or on AI, or on embryonic stem cell research, etc. We have grantees who work on these things at the very forefront of research. And so when politicians want to know about these we can give them information, we can put them in touch with researchers who do that. That’s one thing we do.

But then also with parliament, their parliamentary committees that are interested. So I’ve spoken at events on using animals and experiments. So there’s many, many contexts in which we interact with politicians, and are able to provide advice. I’m of course not an expert in everything — nobody can be — but we do have all the researchers who know well, and who can help.

But then you asked me about advocating. Yes, of course, of course, we will have to fight for the funding of the ERC. So the next Framework Program is being prepared now. So people are thinking about what funding for research should be used for in the next seven year budget of the EU. And many people are thinking about that. We are, of course, consulted, both internally by the work that the Commission does, and externally by the universities; by the academies. So there’s a very lively conversation going on there at many levels. And yes, I do speak publicly and talk to all sorts of parties about why we need funding for fundamental research, and what it does for society.

Jack Leeming: 09:13

Do you see that as just your job? Or would you encourage other scientists to also kind of bang the drum for more funding?

Maria Leptin: 09:23

You know, there’s always this feeling that every scientist has to go out there and defend what they’re doing and explain to the public. I think it’s great if they do and of course, the ERC supports that we have a prize for public engagement. I think it’s very, very good. And some people are excellent at that. There are many good examples of great projects.

And I think scientists should recognize that they’re in a very special position where taxpayers’ money pays for them to follow their own ideas, their own thoughts. And so I think they should at least be aware of that — not everybody is good at explaining that. But yes, those who can should do that. It can’t just be left to me or to people in similar positions. We do all have a duty to make it clear that we are funded by the taxpayer, and we’re doing something that’s valuable for the taxpayer, even if we don’t all invent the next COVID vaccine. But what we do is valuable. And I think scientists should think about that. Researchers in all fields should think about that.

Jack Leeming: 10:35

What advice would you give those researchers, those people interested in advocating funding? Like you say, not everyone, but those who feel they can. What tips and tricks would you provide to them? What kind of advice for public engagement?

Maria Leptin: 10:48

I don’t really think I can, you know, everybody has their own contacts. People have different options for doing this. I don’t know; respond! When asked, respond. And above all, respond honestly.

I think that is the most important thing, that we don’t pretend, we don’t make up reasons why our research is interesting to us. But honestly explain what your interests are. You know, it is not the case, in my view, that all research that is funded by the taxpayers has to have an immediate return in terms of being useful.

There are two aspects to that. First of all, we don’t know what’s useful. Sure, we know that when BioNTech, who had been working on cancer vaccines, use their knowledge that they gained from cancer vaccines, and switch that within a matter of weeks to work on COVID vaccines, we know that’s useful, that’s fantastic.

But the other work that went into it, people who did it 20 years ago, didn’t know what’s useful. So if you turn that round, much work that is being done now, that people do just for fun, and for interest, and to figure out how the world works, may be useful in 20 years time. And if we don’t do this apparently useless work now, we won’t have the basis for dealing with the next big challenge in 2, 5, 10 or 20 years. So even stuff we don’t know is useful now, may be useful in the future.

But there’s something I find even more important, and that is that there’s work that may never be useful, but that is just interesting. Curiosity is an innate human feature; a need, we want to understand. And the thing is that the public actually understands that; the public feels that.

I always use the black hole as an example: front page news of a fuzzy image of an orange ring with a black hole in it. That’s not going to cure cancer, it’s not even going to deal with climate change or poverty in the world. But it’s so exciting. And clearly, the newspapers realize that this is exciting to the people and put it on the front page. The Higgs Boson: who knows really what the Higgs Boson is or does, but it’s out there.

Also other things, using DNA sequencing of ancient DNA to figure out how mankind spread from Africa throughout the world, what our ancestors did, that we interbred with the Neanderthals. Useless knowledge, but bloody interesting. Or if we go into art, you know, old cave paintings. It doesn’t help anybody to understand how they were done, what people saw it, what paints they use. So lots of examples that knowledge in itself is a good cultural value that and that people value it.

So there’s knowledge that will never be useful, but that people care about and that should be funded and knowledge that may be useful, but we don’t know yet. And then there’s knowledge that’s directly useful. And the ERC funds them all. And they all deserve to be funded.

Jack Leeming: 14:12

And they all deserve to be advocated for?

Maria Leptin: 14:15

Yes I think so. I live in a country where there were taxpayers money funds a lot of culture, like every city has a theater, and that’s fully funded by taxpayers. That’s accepted. Not every nation can afford this. But overall as Europe we’re rich enough to have the life of the mind, which is what curiosity driven research is, and which is what theaters are also to be funded by taxpayers money.

Jack Leeming: 14:55

I have one follow up question on something we were talking about earlier. We were talking about cynical research; including things in your grant application that aren’t necessarily all that relevant to your real science, but in an attempt to swindle your way into more funding. Those are my words, not yours, but you know what I mean.

I remember, at the start of the pandemic, looking at bioRxiv, at all the new papers that had come out, and every single one of them was suddenly related to COVID. Despite the fact it couldn’t have been: no one knew anything, no-one had any idea what the latest news was, but because because it was a big, hot scientific topic, everyone was absolutely desperate to include COVID in their papers, so whether you were mathematically modeling wave function, or if you were looking at a particular plant, or something else, it all ended up somehow being related to COVID according to these papers. I wonder if you experienced the same phenomenon at the ERC in terms of the grants you received? And if you could talk about grants during COVID generally?

Maria Leptin: 15:53

Yeah, so I can’t comment on that. But I will comment on your point, the swindling. I agree. And whenever my graduate students or postdocs write up a paper and write the abstract and say in the last sentence, “and this may help to … whatever: cure dementia or Alzheimer’s or COVID, or whatever” I say, “did we do that research for that purpose? And what is the actual connection?” They say “No, but it might”. I say, “take it out.”

That is what I meant, by honest, don’t do that. Now, the bioRxiv and arXiv papers that came out, and people suddenly seeing their work in the light of COVID. Yes, there may be some of that. And maybe they think that their science may get into a high impact journal.

But also, there is an honesty there, because, you know, it’s not as if they’re scientists on the one side, and citizens who want solutions on the other side: scientists are citizens, and they suffered from COVID. And they suddenly saw, hey, you know, what I’m doing may relate. And I think that’s good. And this, by the way, shows something that we also have to keep in mind, that’s very important. That is that scientists themselves have a sense of responsibility for society. So people did say, here is a huge pandemic, here’s a huge new problem, I might be able to contribute. And they said it voluntarily, they did not need a mission that told them, “You must now work on COVID.”

Had you told me that I couldn’t have because what I was doing had no relation. But many of these people did. And they voluntarily switched. I did a survey of all EMBO members at the time. And it was impressive. I mean, some only contributed their PCR machines to allow assays to be developed. But others did the development of assays for COVID, you know, diagnostic assays, others contributed the plastic gloves from their labs. So I think that’s what that flood of papers at the time showed. Everybody felt they should try and contribute somehow, and many, many did.

So did we receive more? Presumably, I don’t have the data. But by the time they would have been reviewed… I’d say it takes three or four months to prepare an application. So if somebody in the beginning of 2020, prepared that application, it would have gone into review, it would have been reviewed, as much as a year later, and it would have probably been overtaken.

So I think anybody who engaged in that cynical ploy was unlikely to have increased the chances of their research being funded at that point, because by the time it was reviewed, it might already have moved on. If it was a great idea and they were triggered to have a great idea by the pandemic, wonderful.

Jack Leeming: 19:00

I know our audience would kill me if I didn’t ask you for some general advice in terms of attracting funding. I’ve heard you give talks in the past, and you’ve been asked for career advice. And you’ve said, I don’t have any. But can you just speak a little bit in terms of both advice for getting funding in any general career advice?

Maria Leptin: 19:18

Yeah, the reason I say I don’t have any career advice is because in my own so called career, I never ended up doing what I thought I wanted to do next. And in fact, I often ended up doing stuff that I had explicitly thought I didn’t want to do like being a Senior Science administrator or giving up my research at an age where I still feel I could have contributed so don’t ask me career advice.

But of course, I have had my science very successfully funded throughout my career. And people do ask me about ERC applications, and I have seen many. So I think the most important thing about attracting funding It is to make sure that you think very deeply, and very critically of your own ideas [and] that you prepare well. You can’t write an ERC grant are in a couple of weeks, not even in four weeks. Most people I know, take three months off, you can’t take three months off completely, but you really don’t plan anything else for those three months. So it takes a lot of work, it’s not trivial.

The other thing that the best people do is get critique from their peers. So you know, expose your ideas to your colleagues. And of course, the first idea you come up with, your colleagues will always say, “Oh, my God, that’s just utter garbage can’t be done this, that and the other.” That is valuable feedback. And I think some people don’t do that: they think, they write down an idea, then they get somebody to put it into language, which they think the European Commission or the panelists want to hear. And then they add on “this may help to cure a disease or stop climate change.”

So I would ditch all that and say, be honest: be honest, honest, honest. Because the panels who see the applications, they’re clever people, and they’ve seen it all before. So any grant that comes in saying “this is breakthrough, this is groundbreaking, this is utterly novel”, don’t say those things, if it’s groundbreaking, describing such a way that the panel sees it.

So I think, in-depth preparation, thinking very hard, exposing your proposal to critique from experts, and being honest, those are the main things. It’s hard. It’s hard. Nobody says it’s easy. And many very good people don’t get their grants or don’t get them in the first round. So if you’re rejected, that’s normal too. Having your grant rejected is normal. Take the feedback, try again next year; maybe you didn’t get enough critique, maybe the stuff that the panels said could have been told to you by your colleagues, maybe not in your own institution, but you know, other colleagues and other institutions.

Jack Leeming: 22:14

And dealing with that kind of rejection, it must take a lot of emotional maturity, right, like a lot of a lot of kind of ability to separate yourself from your work, and like how you how you feel about yourself and things like that. Could you speak about a time you’ve faced a particular projection that you found difficult?

Maria Leptin: 22:33

All the time, all the time, from the start, I mean, if you’re an experimental scientist, your experiments reject you by not working. So first of all, they simply don’t work. So you’ve done something wrong. So you set up the experiment, come back next day, and it didn’t work.

So that’s a disappointment. You’ve got to pick yourself up, do it again, figure out why it didn’t work. And then you write it up, you finally think you’ve got it, you send it to a journal, it’s rejected. So it’s part and parcel of research, we’ve all learned that.

So by the time that people apply for fellowships, apply for PhD positions, it’s always there. Science is competitive. High-level research is competitive. And I have to say, that can’t be taken out as a career, it is part of it. And that’s part of the selection for excellence. It just has to be and not everybody is cut out for that. And that’s fine, too. So there are other ways where one can apply one’s excellence, one’s curiosity, one’s talents, that don’t do this.

But by the time you’re applying for an ERC grant, you’ve learned that or you should have learned that. And I think we can see that in the good grants. And we can also see that once people come for interview; they deal with the questions that the panels have, in a way that shows they’ve learned to deal with critique, and they’ve learned to deal with that level of engagement. So it’s the way it is. Nobody would say to an Olympic runner, or a football team that if you don’t win the match, or if you don’t win the run, go and hide and cry. No, they don’t. Pick yourself up, do it again.

Jack Leeming: 24:31

The other side of the coin, is that the ERC must give out a lot of rejection. I imagine any individual scientist is getting a lot more “No” than they’re getting “Yes” from the ERC. So how do you feel about that personally? Is it difficult being the face of an organization that ultimately disappoints a lot of people?

Maria Leptin: 24:50

Yeah, so let me say one thing. Our success rates are about 12, 13, 14, 15% or thereabouts, which means that over 80% of people get a “no”. And unfortunately, even some that are deemed really excellent, where the panel just says “great application” and rank them as “excellent — should be funded” can’t be funded because there’s not enough money.

Which brings me to the point you asked about earlier advocating for more money: the EU should spend twice as much on research as they do. Now, the ERC is not the only funding. The ERC provides only a tiny amount of total funding in Europe. So there are also other places where one can can get money.

But let me see, do I how do I feel about that? It feels difficult. And it would be great if we could fund more. But like I say, it is normal for grants to be rejected. And there are many other sources for funding. Not in all fields, not in all countries. But it is, you know, it is a small proportion. And it’s in the nature of the game that not everybody can be funded, but the ones that are deemed excellent, and that can’t be funded, that’s really painful. And like I say, fight for the money, everyone out there fight for the money.

Jack Leeming: 26:16

And as someone who leads an organization that, again, ultimately says no to a lot of people. Do you find that to be difficult personally? I reject a lot of pitches from our scientists, our community of scientists who write in and want to write stuff for us. And that can be tricky, because you realize you’re sending out quite a lot of bad juju into the world. And I just, I wonder if you have any thoughts about that personally?

Maria Leptin: 26:48

Yeah, well, I mean, you know, you have to do this personally. An editor has to do this personally, by saying no to a particular manuscript, or like you say, pitches.

Here, we of course, have the have a panel, a peer review panel, that has to come to a consensus. So I personally can only say to people, we do our very best. We, you know, stupid phrase, “we feel your pain”. We do feel your pain, and as does the panel, but it’s a ranking, and there’s a cut off.

So I don’t think anybody feels that they’re personally responsible for having to send out a no. And, you know, reasons are given. It’s also clear that, and I tell people this, with any selection of this type, where there’s a lot of excellence, and you have to make a cut off, there’s an element of luck. There’s an element that you happen to have someone on that panel who thinks is a wonderful idea, wonderful project, and is good at explaining to the other members of the panel why, or your project doesn’t have such an advocate, there is an element of luck, we have to recognize that. It’s not a failure of the system. It’s ultimately human. And the ranking of these applications in a certain range is so close that not getting it doesn’t mean you’re bad. Doesn’t even mean your proposal was bad. It certainly doesn’t mean you’re bad, and it doesn’t mean your proposal was bad. It just meant that too tight to tell. So I don’t think anybody has to feel they’re being unfair or has to feel guilty. Sad. Yes. Guilty. Not.

Jack Leeming: 28:41

Thank you. Thank you very much. I’m fresh out of questions. But is there anything else that you are interested in sharing or want to mention that we haven’t covered?

Maria Leptin: 28:50

Something that I think also matters to people who apply to the ERC. And that says something about the selection. So the ERC very clearly wants breakthrough, you know, potential. Really groundbreaking research. One can’t always predict that. In fact, one can almost never predict that one can do one’s best to guess what’s going to go that way.

But this sometimes leads to the perception in the public that research that is confirming or that is just incremental research. “Incremental”, has become a sort of negative word used by journals — a wonderful word for journals to reject a paper — and also other selection panels. I think just because the ERC only has in its remit to fund just a very tiny sliver of well defined particular type of research doesn’t mean that the other research isn’t necessary.

I think incremental research is essential. We need confirmation we need, “this has been shown in this cell type in this particular mouse”, we need to know whether it’s generally applicable. Even if it only confirms that it’s or your example of this metal, you know, something new, big breakthrough, let’s sort of define the periphery better. Just because it’s incremental and is not another breakthrough. Doesn’t mean it’s not important. It’s extremely important. And I think it has to remember that that has to be funded. And that that’s valuable research. And there are many sources of funding for that kind of research. And they’re good and they’re valuable.

Jack Leeming: 30:43

Right. And not everything needs to be a moonshot, right? Like science, pretends to itself. Everything’s kind of this next amazing big thing. But that’s not just how science works.

Maria Leptin: 30:53

It can’t be and you can’t make the next big amazing discovery if you don’t have all that so-called incremental research that forms the basis. I mean, you know, if you want to do a moonshot, you better have a lot of evidence and a lot of people having tried out different things, different options that lead to nothing, but it’s all valuable for someone who might stumble across something that will be the next moonshot. No, we can’t have only moonshot research, absolutely not.

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