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Shaping the Future: The Crucial Role of a Research Infrastructure's First Director

The appointment of the first Director of a newly established research infrastructure is a pivotal decision with lasting impact on its culture and success prospects. This individual not only sets the initial strategic direction but also establishes the foundational values, operational norms and general organizational culture. The qualifications and personality of the first Director are crucial; they can either foster a positive, collaborative, and efficient culture or lead to negative outcomes that may persist long after the first Director tenure.

A prime example of the latter scenario is the European Spallation Source (ESS) during its early stages. Prior to becoming a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), the leadership of the first Director had a significant negative impact on ESS's financial and management culture for several years to come. This period was marked by a lack of adequate controls and reckless spending. Such fiscal mismanagement in a research setting not only diverts precious resources but also undermines the research infrastructure's credibility and hampers its scientific mission to the point that it may lose the trust of its most important stakeholders.

Furthermore, as was the case at ESS, the interpersonal dynamics and management style of its first Director were problematic. Pitting top management members against each other created an environment of distrust and internal competition. In a research infrastructure, where collaboration and shared objectives are key to innovation and progress, such a divisive culture can be particularly damaging. It stifles the open exchange of ideas and inhibits a cohesive strategic approach, critical for the long-term success of research organizations.

The lasting impact of these early decisions and the initial leadership style was felt for a long time after the first Director was asked to leave ESS AB, upon transition to an ERIC legal entity. While subsequent directors may have been significantly more competent and positive in their approach, rectifying entrenched issues in organizational culture and financial management required considerable time and effort. Luckily, today the ESS leadership and financial management are in better hands, but this example underscores the importance of careful selection for such a crucial role. It is not just about the immediate tasks at hand but about setting a precedent and tone that will shape the future of the organizational culture of the research infrastructure for years to come.

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