Canadian-Born Geologist Tapped for Key E.U. Research Post

A geologist born and raised in Canada is slated to take on a key role in the European Research Council (ERC), the E.U.'s agency for funding individual basic researchers. Science has learned that Donald Bruce Dingwell of Ludwig Maximilians University (LMU) in Munich, Germany, has been picked as ERC's next secretary general, a Brussels-based position in which he will serve as a bridge between the agency's scientific council and its day-to-day managers.

Several sources say that Dingwell is the "secretary general-designate" and that his appointment will be announced if his negotiations with the European Commission and with LMU don't hit a roadblock. When contacted by ScienceInsider yesterday, Dingwell did not dispute the news but declined further comment.

Dingwell, 51, is an experimental volcanologist, probing the chemistry and physics of magma in lab experiments. Originally from Canada, he moved to Germany in 1987 to head the Bavarian Research Institute of Experimental Geochemistry and Geophysics at the University of Bayreuth. In 2000, he moved to LMU to chair the mineralogy and petrology department; in 2002, he was elected director of the university's newly formed Department for Earth and Environmental Sciences, a position he still holds.

In ERC's hybrid and controversial organizational structure, Dingwell would take on a role that some call unenviable and that may be phased out in a few years. ERC's strategy is set by the scientific council, chaired by Austrian sociologist Helga Nowotny, but its management is in the hands of a so-called executive agency, an organization in Brussels at arm's length of—but ultimately controlled by—the European Commission (EC). The executive agency and the scientific council have occasionally clashed; as the council's liaison to the agency, the secretary general's job is to see that the council's wishes are carried out. But the post carries no formal powers. "At worst he can preach in the desert," a 2009 report about ERC concluded. "At best, he can hope that informal relations and mutual understanding will allow him to exert a minimal influence."

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, ERC's first secretary general, says that informal influence can nonetheless go a long way. Dingwell's most important job will be to help ensure that the peer review of grant applications runs smoothly, Winnacker says. "That is the heart of a research council," he says. "It's only as good as its peer review." The secretary general can also help keep ERC staff "enthusiastic, interested, motivated, and scientifically up to date," he adds.

Dingwell, who has more than 240 publications to his name as well as a series of awards and honors, is "an ambitious scientist and very conscious of the quality of research being done," says Tuija Pulkkinen, dean of the School of Electrical Engineering at Aalto University in Finland. Dingwell—who is slated to succeed Pulkkinen as president of the European Geosciences Union later this year—has a keen interest in how science can play a role in society, she adds. "We do science in fields that touch people and society at large—climate change, volcanoes." Dingwell "wants to help build the science-based society that the E.U. has been promising—and also raise the profile of science in Europe," she says. "My opinion of him is only positive," adds Nicholas Arndt, a volcanologist at the Laboratoire de Géodynamique des Chaînes Alpines, a CNRS research institute in Grenoble, France, who believes the new job would be "a very good match."

The 2009 report (pdf) about ERC recommended merging the position of secretary general with that of the director of the executive agency, who manages ERC's operations, and to fill it with a distinguished scientist with broad administrative experience. ERC decided to follow that advice in 2009, and it even started recruiting candidates for the new position, only to reverse course in late 2010 and keep the current dual structure intact while a task force ponders a major overhaul of the organizational structure. Dingwell's stint would last until the end of the E.U.'s Framework Programme 7—of which ERC is a part—in 2013. After that, he may return to his job at LMU, which is apparently an element of the current negotiations.

Although his science management experience is limited, Dingwell has gotten to know ERC from another side: that of a grant applicant. Last year, he was one of 245 scientists who won an Advanced Investigator Grant. What will happen to the grant—for studies of "Explosive Volcanism in the Earth System"--if he agrees to the job in Brussels is unclear.