ERC'S New Secretary-General on Women in Science and "Fair Trade"

Spanish economist Andreu Mas-Colell, 65, took over on 1 July as secretary-general of the European Research Council (ERC), a relatively new science funding agency. In that position, he's the representative of ERC's Scientific Council, which sets scientific policy at the Executive Agency, the Brussels office that runs the funding body. Mas-Colell, who worked at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard University for 23 years, has been a professor at Barcelona's Universitat Pompeu Fabra since 1995, and was science minister for the region of Catalonia from 2000 until 2003.

Mas-Colell arrives at a hectic time for the 3-year-old granting agency. On Wednesday, the Executive Agency reached "administrative autonomy," a position that puts it at a greater distance from the European Commission. Next week, a blue-ribbon panel will unveil a crucial review of ERC's structure and procedures. At the end of the month, ERC will issue the third call for its popular Starting Grants. In an interview this week, Mas-Colell stressed that ERC wants to do more help young researchers, especially women. The following questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: You had a long academic career in economics. Why the switch to science administration?
A.M.-C.: I worked in the United States until I was about 50 years old. You arrive at a point where it makes sense to devote time to the management of science, to try to facilitate the life of younger scientists. For me it was most attractive to do that in Europe. I feel very European, which is why I moved back to Spain. I have been very active in promoting science in Catalonia; the opportunity to do this at the European level is simply irresistible.

Q: Any new organization has growing pains. What have been the problems with ERC so far?
A.M.-C.: The ERC has been growing at a dizzying rate, from two or three people to 200, in a few years. We have had to learn a lot along the way, and of course there have been many, many glitches—but I think they have been minor. We are making some adjustments, however. For instance, we're hoping to introduce a new type of grant, Consolidators Grants, in addition to our Starters Grants and Advanced Grants.

Q: What's the reasoning behind that?
A.M.-C.: Starters Grants are available for people up to 10 years after they obtained their Ph.D. But the review panels told us that there's too much difference between people with, say 3 or 4 years of experience and those with 8 or 9. The latter group is more independent, and they tended to have a better chance of winning. As a result, the early starters didn't have as much of a chance as they should have. By reserving a portion of the grants for them, we hope to change that.

Q: The first two calls have been criticized because the vast majority of the grants went to scientists from northwest Europe and to men. Do you see that as a problem?
A.M.-C.: It's true that the twelve countries who recently joined the European Union had very low success rates. What can we do about it? Let me tell you what we can't do: change the rules. We are driven by excellence, and that will not change. That said, I think the situation is bound to improve. Countries can use other forms of financing, such as the E.U.'s structural funds, to improve their scientific infrastructure. Spain has done that for over 15 years and Spain is not doing badly in the grants. Eastern Europe has a deep scientific tradition and there's no reason to believe they are not capable of winning grants.

The situation with women is different, and we need improvement. But you have to distinguish two different things: the submission of grants and the selection process. For the 2007 Starters Grants, 30% of the submissions came from women; it's even a bit lower, 28.8%, in the 2009 round, whose numbers have not yet been announced. For the 2008 Advanced Grants, it was 14%. Those numbers are worrisome, and we will keep campaigning and networking to increase the percentage. As to the selection, 26% of the Starters Grants went to women, and 11.6% of the Advanced Grants.

Q: Do you mean to say that there is no bias in the selection process?
A.M.-C.: Well, the percentage of grants awarded to women is slightly lower than the percentage of submissions, and we worry about every percent. We're doing a structural analysis, panel by panel, to make sure there is not any built-in bias in our system. I hope the change in the calls that I mentioned will also help. Perhaps by making more grants available for scientists with 2 to 6 years experience, the playing field will become more even for women. When you get to 8 or 9 years of experience, perhaps men have had more of a chance to build up a track record because they concentrate more on their work. But this is speculation on my part.

Q: At a recent meeting, ERC President Fotis Kafatos said that the number of advanced grants would stay roughly the same from now on. Many scientists had hoped it would keep going up.
A.M.-C.: Our resources will reach a steady state. From the very beginning, the ERC has regarded the cultivation of young talent as absolutely crucial to the future of European science. For example, if we want to bring back talent that's currently abroad, it's easier to do that in an early phase, when they haven't yet consolidated their careers. But the number of advanced grants won't go down.

Q: You have lived in the United States for more than 25 years, How has that influenced your views on science policy?
A.M.-C.: I suppose it has shaped them. First and foremost, I totally subscribe to the ERC's vision of excellence-based research rather than using other criteria, such as geographic region. I know that will be good for Europe because I have seen that it's good for the U.S. I also think it's good to organize this at the European level; the National Science Foundation also operates at the federal level. But we're still tiny compared to U.S. institutions. We're about one-fourth the size of NSF, which is one-fifth the size of the National Institutes of Health. We'll always be smaller than they are, but we need to become bigger than we are now.

Q: Europe can become the Massachusetts of the world, you said in the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia. What did you mean by that?
A.M.-C.: Demographic predictions say that in 2050, roughly 4% to 5% of the world population will live in Europe—that's similar to the percentage of U.S. people living in Massachusetts. And yet Massachusetts is a reference for higher education and research, not just in the U.S. So it's a legitimate ambition for us to become a central point for research and higher education. The accumulation of talent is going to be central in that. It's perfectly normal that Europeans develop their careers outside of Europe, but it should be similarly natural that non-Europeans develop their careers here. There has to be a balance, and if possible a surplus.

Q: You have also proposed the idea of "fair trade" in attracting talent. Can you explain?
A.M.-C.: I was talking about recruiting scientists from the developing world. We should help them develop their careers, for instance by making it easy for them to travel and obtains visas. But the developing world needs its scientists too. We have to make sure that we set up and finance institutes in those countries, set up twinning arrangements with institutes in Europe, and so forth. For them, it should not be like stepping in an elevator and never going back. We have to think of this as creating corridors instead.