ERC chief quits after board blocks COVID-19 programme

The president of the European Research Council (ERC), Mauro Ferrari, resigned on 7 April after just three months in the post after failing to win support from the ERC’s board, the Scientific Council, for a special programme of research aimed at combating the COVID-19 virus using the ERC as a funding mechanism.

He said he tendered his resignation to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen after his proposal to address the pandemic via a concerted coordinated action was rejected unanimously by the governing body of the ERC.

He said in a letter published in the Financial Times: “As it became evident that the pandemic would be a tragedy of possibly unprecedented proportions, I moved that the European Research Council should establish a special programme directed at combating COVID-19.

“I believed this was justified by the expected burden of death, suffering, societal transformation and economic devastation, especially striking the less fortunate, the weakest in the societies of the world.

“I thought that at a time like this, the very best scientists in the world should be provided with resources and opportunities to fight the pandemic, with new drugs, new vaccines, new diagnostic tools, new behavioural dynamic approaches based on science, to replace the oft-improvised intuitions of political leaders.

“The proposal was rejected unanimously by the governing body of the ERC, without even considering what shape or form it may take, and to such an extent that my presidency became fully opposed by them, in every respect.

“The rejection of my motion was based on the notion that the ERC funds ‘bottom-up’ research: It does not specify focus areas or its funding objectives, nor does it consider beneficial impact on society as a funding criterion.”

The ERC Scientific Council issued a press release the next day arguing that Ferrari’s letter did not present the differences between the president and the Scientific Council correctly.

The statement said that on 27 March all 19 active members of the ERC’s Scientific Council individually and unanimously requested that Ferrari resign from his position.

It said the request was made for four reasons. These included that during his three-month term in office, Professor Ferrari “displayed a complete lack of appreciation for the raison d’être of the ERC to support excellent frontier science, designed and implemented by the best researchers in Europe”.

Although voicing his support for this in public pronouncements, the proposals he made to the Scientific Council “did not reflect this position”. He did not understand the context of the ERC within the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, the ERC Scientific Council said.

Further, since his appointment, Ferrari had “displayed a lack of engagement with the ERC, failing to participate in many important meetings, spending extensive time in the US and failing to defend the ERC’s programme and mission when representing the ERC”.

In contrast, Ferrari made several personal initiatives within the Commission, “without consulting or tapping into the collective knowledge of the Scientific Council, and instead using his position to promote his own ideas”.

Lastly, the council complained that Ferrari was involved in multiple external enterprises, some academic and some commercial, which took a lot of his time and effort and appeared on several occasions to “take precedence over his commitment to the ERC”.

“The workload associated with these activities proved to be incompatible with the mandate of president of the Scientific Council.”

The Scientific Council said it wished to clarify, in case of any doubt, that they “absolutely endorse the view that scientific research will provide the best solutions to tackling pandemics such as COVID-19”.

LERU sides with the council

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) said that the departure of Professor Ferrari was “regretful but unavoidable” since the ERC programme had to be protected against any “top-down influence”.

“For LERU the most important issue is to preserve the ERC as the flagship of European research policy. This includes safeguarding the free bottom-up approach for researchers and the collective guidance by the Scientific Council. Neither of these can be endangered.

“In the last 13 years, under successive presidents, this approach and guidance have proven their efficiency for increasing knowledge, developing disruptive innovation, and serving society and its economy.”

LERU said Ferrari, in explaining why he had resigned, had “demonstrated how much he underestimates the significance of independent bottom-up research and of the intrinsic commitment of researchers to contribute to society by developing new fundamental insights”.

LERU applauded the efforts of European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel to mobilise funds in an “unprecedented and impressive way” for COVID-19 research.

“The European Union and the member states have mobilised their common energy to launch pan-European clinical trials to test, as quickly as possible, the efficiency of different treatments, to develop robust tests, and research for vaccines,” said LERU.

On 8 April Science|Business arranged a webinar, “COVID-19 and Horizon: What is to be done?” during which the initial discussion centred on the Ferrari case. Webinar speakers included Christian Ehler, member of the European Parliament; Helga Nowotny, professor emerita of ETH Zurich and former ERC president; Otmar D Wiestler, president of the German Helmholtz Association; and Isabelle Thizon-De Gaulle, the vice president for European strategic initiatives and scientific relations at Sanofi.

The participants were in agreement that Ferrari had misunderstood the rules of the game of the ERC programme, but also that a more coordinated European Commission approach towards COVID-19 research was warranted.

Moderator Richard L Hudson from Science|Business told the audience that they had monitored all funding agencies across the continents looking at how they prioritise and address COVID-19 research problems “and there is one observation we see: they do not talk with each other”.

‘Complete disconnect’

John-Arne Røttingen, chief executive of the Research Council of Norway, told University World News: “It is unfortunate that there seems to have emerged a complete disconnect between the new ERC president and the Scientific Council.

“It is important to recognise that the ERC’s main mandate is open calls with the aim to fund the best science, and that other parts of the European Commission framework programme have the role of investing strategically in areas addressing both global and European societal challenges.”

However, he said he understands the ambition of Ferrari to also have the ERC playing a role in the much-needed research efforts to address COVID-19, as the “ERC’s network of grantees are leaders in their field, and cross-disciplinary collaboration is needed in a crisis like this”.

He said: “I therefore believe there are mechanisms that the ERC can use to support the overall efforts and give space for their grantees to contribute without running into the unnecessary and unproductive debate of an either-or when it comes to bottom-up and strategic research.”

Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said both the need to safeguard the core principle of the ERC as a funding body for bottom-up research initiatives and the need to support a collective action directed to the new coronavirus and the pandemic it has caused “should have been reconciled in a more diplomatic manner”.

He told University World News: “My personal opinion – after having worked in the ERC system as panel chair since its inception – is that we should stay faithful to the mandate of the ERC even in a time of crisis. The ERC has proved extremely successful, precisely because it has shied away from any attempt to steer its resources to specific topics. Quality – and quality alone – is what matters. The ERC is duly respected worldwide because of this.”

Ample options outside the ERC

Ottersen said the second ambition, to leverage the research community in concerted action on COVID-19, should be realised outside of the ERC.

“The European Union has ample possibilities to enhance its mission-oriented funding in the direction of the current pandemic. We already see that steps have been taken in this direction, with funding set aside for vaccine research. Now we see that EU countries (and others) are funnelling enormous financial resources into the private sector to mitigate the economic fallout of lockdown policies. Why not direct the same attention to research and innovation?

“Money invested in COVID-19 research today serves a dual purpose: it will help us contain the current crisis but will also make us better prepared for the next pandemic. History tells us that it will come.”