BERLIN--When the new European Research Council (ERC) sets sail next year, it will have the steady hand of a veteran science manager at its helm. The ERC's Scientific Council announced today that it has chosen biologist Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, current president of the German funding agency the DFG, as the organization's first secretary-general. In an unexpected double appointment, the council said that Winnacker will serve for just half of the expected 5-year term. In July 2009, he will be succeeded by Spanish economist Andreu Mas-Colell, who will serve through 2011.
A new initiative of the European Union, the ERC is designed to serve as a sort of National Science Foundation for all of Europe, funding cutting-edge research while avoiding the bureaucratic tangles of current E.U. funding schemes. But it faces a tall task as it gets off the ground: It must prove that it can spend its €1 billion ($1.28 billion) yearly budget efficiently while keeping red tape to a minimum. The Scientific Council, which is made up of 22 leading scientists from across Europe, is charged with setting the rules and scientific guidelines for the ERC. The secretary-general will serve as a liaison between the Scientific Council and the Brussels bureaucrats, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the ERC.
Winnacker, 65, has earned good reviews as head of the DFG for the past 9 years. He had already announced his plans to step down as DFG president at the end of this year and was widely regarded as a leading candidate for the secretary-general job. Mas-Colell, a well-known economist, is a professor at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and was commissioner for universities and research for Catalonia from 1999 to 2003.
Both choices will provide the young organization with strong leadership, says Frank Gannon of the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany. Mas-Colell has been a strong advocate for increased research funding, he says, and Winnacker is "a solid appointment of someone who knows how to manage science at the highest level." Gannon says Winnacker is well-positioned to fight for the ERC in the face of possible political meddling in the first few years: "He will not be pushed around."