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

Updated: Mar 11

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 spontaneous spending. Such fiscal behavior in a research setting can divert precious resources, potentially undermining the credibility of the research infrastructure and hampering its scientific mission. This could lead to a loss of trust among its most important stakeholders.

In contrast to the previous example, there exist contrasting cases like ELIXIR, where the positive impact of the initial director is expected to be enduring. This is attributed to the solid foundation laid for the research infrastructure, ensuring its long-term success.

The lasting impact of the initial leadership style is likely to be felt long after the first Director has departed. While subsequent directors may bring their own competencies and unique approaches, addressing entrenched issues in organizational culture and financial management demands 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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