Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Last week’s noisy resignation of Mauro Ferrari as president of the €2.2 billion European Research Council (ERC)—the European Union’s foremost funder of basic research—revealed a rift over its approach to research on the coronavirus pandemic. Ferrari’s departure, just 3 months into the job, also showed the limits of an ERC president’s power to influence the course of a funding agency that prides itself on its independence.
On 7 April, the same day Ferrari stepped down as ERC president and chair of its Scientific Council, he released a statement to the Financial Times, saying he had “lost faith in the system” and was upset by ERC’s unwillingness to set up a “special program” to address the COVID-19 pandemic. But the next day, the 19 other members of the science council hit back. In a sharp statement, the council said Ferrari “displayed a complete lack of appreciation for the raison d’être of the ERC.” It also suggested that Ferrari had neglected his duties to attend to personal projects in the United States. It said the council unanimously called for his resignation on 27 March.
Although the European Union has allocated other R&D money for coronavirus research, ERC is required by EU law to exclusively support bottom-up basic research proposals without favoring particular fields. In mid-March, the science council rejected Ferrari’s call for action on coronavirus research. Around that time, Ferrari was also discussing his ideas with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. For council member Michael Kramer, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Ferrari seemed to be going behind the council’s back. “When he started his initiative within the Commission, we were not told,” he says. It was “the last drip in the bucket.”
In an interview, Ferrari says he had no intention of violating the rule prohibiting specific research calls, but he believes ERC ought to be part of a coordinated research initiative on the virus, along with funders such as the European Innovation Council. “I was advocating a team approach,” Ferrari says.
Ferrari began the job in January as a relative outsider to EU politics. Born in Italy, he has spent most of his career working on nanomedicine in the United States, where he is a naturalized citizen. He headed the Houston Methodist Research Institute for 9 years before retiring in 2019.
The job of ERC president is a part-time, 180-day-a-year appointment. But science council members felt he was spending too much time on academic and commercial activities in the United States. Ferrari sits on the board of Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals, and is a part-time affiliate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. He says his external activities were approved in advance by the Commission and argues his predecessors kept academic positions, too.
But Janet Thornton, an ERC vice president and former director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, says Ferrari skipped important meetings, including one on 26 February with Commission staff to discuss matters affecting ERC’s autonomy and flexibility. “This particular meeting was a really important one,” she says. That evening, he gave a speech for a charity event at a London hospital whose chairman is a board member of BrYet, a biotech firm founded by Ferrari.
Ferrari says he had committed to the charity event much earlier, and that he did join the ERC meeting, by phone. He says no one ever told him his attendance or his other activities were a problem, and that he put in more work than his contract required. He denies that he was spending too much time in the United States, pointing to a house he bought in Brussels. “My wife now wants to kill me because we are leaving that house!”
Ferrari was one of three names recommended by an independent search committee to Carlos Moedas, the EU research commissioner at the time. Helga Nowotny, a former ERC president who served on the search committee, says Ferrari showed promise. After he was picked in May 2019, Ferrari came to talk with her about the job. “He was asking a lot of good questions,” she says. But, “He comes from the outside, and I think he thought that [ERC] is now his, like having a company.”
Some research leaders wonder why Ferrari didn’t walk away from the job quietly. “I think he’s harmed his reputation now by doing what he did,” says Anne Glover, head of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the former EU chief science adviser. But Ferrari remains adamant that European science funders ought to be doing more about the pandemic. And he wasn’t going to explain his departure with the cliché about wanting to spend more time with his family, he says. “Leaving with a flimsy excuse, when people are in the biggest crisis of a generation?”