New ERC Secretary General: 'It's About the Sausage'

Bound for Brussels. Born in Canada, Donald Dingwell says he's "a European patriot all the way."

European Research Council

On Thursday, experimental volcanologist Donald Dingwell of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich will become the new secretary general of the European Research Council (ERC). Dingwell, 53, was born in Canada but has lived and worked in Germany since 1987. (He is a citizen of both countries.) In his new position, Dingwell will be the liaison between the ERC's Scientific Council, which sets the agency's policies, and the Executive Agency, which manages its day-to-day operations from Brussels.

Science Insider, which first reported Dingwell's candidacy in January, talked to the new secretary general after the ERC officially announced his appointment today. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What made you decide to apply for this job?

D.D.: The ERC is by far the most exciting thing that has happened in the research landscape in Europe, possibly in the world, in the last decade. I'm absolutely inspired by it. But I also know one has to be constantly on the watch for how these things develop. And therefore I'm happy to take that onto my shoulders for 2 years.

Q: What makes it so exciting?

D.D.: It stands for the support of the best research as defined by the community of researchers. It does not rely on many further criteria. What it does can be described in a sentence: To support the top research and innovation in Europe, without any ifs, ands, or buts. When I compare that to other possibilities for funding, that's remarkable.

Q: You are a grantee yourself as well?

D.D.: That's correct, and I've also been on a [review] panel. I've seen it all! As a grantee, it's been a very positive experience; I'd recommend it to anybody. My experience on the panel was excellent and very interesting. It's a small group, 15 people, and everybody understands they're all in it together. As we say in German, "Es geht um die Wurst [It's about the sausage.]." It's about big, important stuff. It brought out the best in everybody.

Q: But you don't have a lot of experience in European research policy.

D.D.: Not in making policy, no. From the point of view of somebody who is impacted and makes use of the policy, of course, yes. Twenty-five years of research in Europe, and I have been on over 20 panels, going on 30. I've seen a lot, and I have a lot of experience in the practicality of how these panels are run, not only within the ERC also in more complex structures, such as those of the Marie Curie program.

Q: Your new position has been called that of a lame duck. As the Scientific's Council's liaison to the Executive Agency, you will have few formal powers. Do you think that will be a problem?

D.D.: It might be. I'm sure that when I walk into the building, it's not all going to be, as we say in German, "Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen [Peace, joy, egg pancakes]." I'm sure there will be friction points. You have the council, which is independent, and has quite a lot of say, and you have the boys in the machine room who make sure everything runs. My job is to communicate the wisdom of the council to the agency and to communicate the practicalities of the agency back to the council. They will have different views sometimes.

But I know I have the support of all sides. People all know that I'm coming and I had the distinct impression in the last months that everybody wants the same thing. How many times in life can you say that?

Q: Do you have specific ideas about the ERC's direction?

D.D.: I have some, but I have to hold my cards close to my chest. The council has been working for years; I first want to understand what wisdom they've come up with.

Q: You were born in Canada but you have lived in Germany for half your life. Do you feel more European or Canadian?

D.D.: Interesting that you ask it that way, because I have German citizenship; European citizenship of course does not exist. But I feel extremely European. [I] believe [the European Union] is the answer to a huge number of problems--including in science. After I arrived in Germany in 1987, I slowly learned to understand how the German system worked. Suddenly, I got a call from colleagues in Paris, asking me if I wanted to join them on a project. That opened up doors, windows, opportunities, a whole new horizon on how to do science that was desperately needed in Europe. It catalyzed things.

So I'm a European patriot all the way. I think this part of the world needs this whole endeavor.