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Leptin: we may not be ready for research security challenges

Image: G7 Italia [CC BY 3.0 IT]

European Research Council president Maria Leptin issues warning in keynote speech to G7 research ministers

The research sector may not be ready for the challenges it faces around security, the president of the European Research Council has warned.

Maria Leptin (pictured, centre) issued the warning in a keynote speech she was invited to give at a meeting of research ministers from the G7 group of leading global economies on 10 July.

Geopolitical trends mean that researchers are set to have to “protect” some of their findings against being “compromised”, she said, reflecting movements already underway.

But she added: “I am not sure we and our institutions are sufficiently prepared and equipped for that, or that the task of assessing security risks should be imposed on researchers or institutions.”

Questions to be answered

Leptin expressed her fear even though she said most countries are so far adhering to the principle that their research should be “as open as possible, as closed as necessary”.

“Tough decisions will need to be made” regarding where to apply security restrictions along the continuum of basic to applied research, she warned, saying it was “important to distinguish” between the poles of this continuum.

“Basic research—often driven by pure curiosity and the desire to understand the world, and less immediate in its applications—must remain open. For applied research, closer to market…the risks may be more immediate,” necessitating higher levels of safeguarding, she said.

Other questions that need addressing, according to Leptin, include: “Are we going to restrict collaborations with specific countries, organisations or individuals? On particular technologies? Will scientists need to disclose their meetings, travel and affiliations?”

There will be costs to restricting research, she warned, including slowed progress. Excessive restrictions could lead talented researchers to relocate to more permissive countries, she suggested, and could also hamper international collaboration.

Balanced approach needed

Leptin called for “a balanced approach” that, as much as possible, would retain the international collaboration she said is particularly required for tackling global challenges such as climate change.

Responding to the speech on social media, League of European Research Universities secretary-general Kurt Deketelaere said he “fully agreed”, while Mattias Björnmalm, secretary-general of the Cesaer group of European science and technology universities, described it as an “excellent speech”.

Meanwhile, the European Economic and Social Committee, a formal consultative body for the EU comprised of representatives of workers’ unions and economic and cultural organisations, adopted its view on the European Commission’s proposals for EU measures on research security, put forward in January.

Echoing Leptin and the proposals themselves, the EESC said “a fair balance should be struck between the need for security and the need to maintain the international openness” of R&I. It cited a need to address a lack of guidance on matters such as risk profiling and the drafting of international agreements.

ERC awards

During a busy period for the ERC, following the publication of its 2025 work programme and the launch of its 2025 funding call for Starting Grants, the funder also announced the results of the 2024 call for its Proof of Concept scheme, which provides already-funded researchers with an extra €150,000 to help them explore the commercialisation of their results.

The call is funding 100 grants, the ERC announced, with researchers in the UK getting the most (15), followed by researchers in the Netherlands (14) and Italy (12). Among the winners, the ERC said that Nanda Rea, an astrophysicist at the the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Spain, received the 2,000th award under the scheme.

“This milestone reminds us once again that many researchers seek to bring their research results to market,” Leptin said in a statement. 

“The ERC initially introduced its Proof of Concept funding because frontier research often generates radically new ideas that drive innovation and business inventiveness. We must invest seriously in such curiosity-driven frontier research, if Europe is to be able to lead.”