The Scientific Council of the ERC, the European Commission and Horizon Europe rapporteur Christian Ehler react to Mauro Ferrari's resignation letter published by the Financial Times on Tuesday.
Statement by Mauro Ferrari
Return to the frontlines, to the frontier
Please forgive me, but I believe that the priority now is to stop the pandemic. The priority is to save possibly millions of lives. It takes precedence over careers, politics, even the beauty of certain science. Please forgive me, but I believe in science at the service of society, especially when it counts the most. And now it does count the most, since it is only through science that Covid-19, and its successor pandemics, will ever be defeated.
My tenure as President of the European Research Council (ERC) has come to an end, as earlier today I tendered my resignation to President Ursula von der Leyen. My appointment was announced in May 2019, to take office on January 1, 2020. In the intervening 7 months I volunteered my time to the ERC, motivated by my enthusiasm for the great reputation of this world-leading funding agency, my commitment to the idealistic dream of a United Europe, and my belief in serving the needs of the world, through service to the best of science.
Those idealistic motivations were crushed by a very different reality, in the brief three months since I took office. Disquieting early warning, signs gave way to the painfully icy, cold recognitions of a world entirely different from what I had envisioned. The Covid-19 pandemic shone a merciless light on how mistaken I had been: In time of emergencies people, and institutions, revert to their deepest nature and reveal their true character.
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 program 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. In view of the transparency policies of the ERC, my motion and the responses of the governing body are in the domain of public information.
True, the European Commission does have “Top-Down”, focused funding programs, and several of those have been directed in part against the pandemic. However, they form a largely uncoordinated cluster of initiatives, with limited emphasis on blue-sky, breakthrough discovery. True, the ERC rightfully prides itself as the agency that funds the elites of excellence in the sciences, based on the investigators’ choices of what projects they wish to submit for funding. Yet, in my idealistic fantasies, I thought that at times like these, the very best should pick up their best weapons, and go to the frontier, to the front-lines, to defeat this formidable enemy. I argued that this was not the time for scientific governance to worry excessively about the subtleties of the distinctions between Bottom-Up versus Top-Down research, or whether all scientific sectors would benefit similarly from a broad initiative on Covid-19. So, I was clearly disappointed, and deeply disturbed, by the unanimous rejection.
My disappointment was partially relieved, when President von der Leyen personally reached out asking for my input on how the pandemic might be addressed. Over a few days, I developed a plan, over several iterations, to which she contributed substantial directives. The very fact that I worked directly with her created an internal political thunderstorm. The proposal was passed on to different layers of European Commission administration, where I believe disintegrated upon impact. I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to Covid-19, for what pertains to the complete absence of coordination of health care policies among member states, the recurrent opposition to cohesive financial support initiatives, the pervasive one-sided border closures, and the marginal scale of synergistic scientific initiatives.
I am afraid that I have seen enough of both the governance of science, and the political operations at the European Union. In these three long months, I have indeed met many excellent and committed individuals, at different levels of the organization of the ERC and the EC. However, I have lost faith in the system itself. And now the times require decisive, focused, and committed actions – a call to responsibility for all those that have an aspiration to make a difference against this devastating tragedy. So, may I take this opportunity to offer my sincere, and humble gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the European system for this time period, which proved to be simultaneously too brief, and yet too long.
Now it is time for me to return to the frontier, to the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19, with real resources and responsibilities, away from offices in Brussels, where my political skills are clearly inadequate, and again at the true service of those who need new medical solutions. So far, despite my formal title, my real role has been to serve as an advisor to the European Commission. Following my departure, I will be honored and happy to continue to provide my most conscientious advice, in a public and transparent manner, for free, and without the need for misleading, high-sounding titles, if Europe or anyone else wishes to ask.
First published by the Financial Times.
Statement by the Scientific Council of the ERC
The ERC's Scientific Council notes with regret the statement made by Mauro Ferrari concerning his resignation on 7 April. We here present the facts of the situation.
On Friday 27 March, all 19 active members of the ERC’s Scientific Council individually and unanimously requested that Mauro Ferrari resign from his position as ERC’s President.
This request was made for four reasons:
- 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.
- Since his appointment, Professor Ferrari displayed a lack of engagement with the ERC, failing to participate in many important meetings, spending extensive time in the USA and failing to defend the ERC’s programme and mission when representing the ERC.
- In contrast, Professor 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, Professor 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 ERC. The workload associated with these activities proved to be incompatible with the mandate of President of the Scientific Council.
Professor Ferrari subsequently resigned on 7 April 2020. Therefore, his resignation in fact followed a written unanimous vote of no confidence. In contrast, Professor Ferrari has stated that the reason for his resignation is that the Scientific Council did not support his call for the ERC to fund a special initiative focused on the COVID-19 virus. To address this point specifically, we did not support a special initiative because that is not our remit and the Commission's Research and Innovation Directorate General, with which we are connected, was already very active in developing new programmes to support this research through the appropriate channels.
Indeed, many ERC funded researchers have been active for some time in researching the coronavirus family and many other equally dangerous pathogens. Over 50 ongoing or completed ERC projects supported for a total value of about EUR 100 million are contributing to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing insights from several different scientific fields such as: virology, epidemiology, immunology, paths for new diagnostics and treatments, public health, medical devices, artificial intelligence, social behaviour, crisis management.
In addition, as stated on its website in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis, the ERC offers ‘grantees the flexibility to adjust their research project”. This is an efficient measure because several ERC grantees already enquired about the possibility of addressing COVID-19 related research in their ongoing ERC project. All this information is publicly available on the ERC website, which also includes testimonies from funded ERC grantees on how bottom-up frontier research is critical to deliver new – and sometimes unexpected – insights relevant for better understanding and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for providing social behaviour and crisis management related solutions.
However, the ERC does not make calls for specific topics, since a guiding principle of ERC is that our researchers are free to pursue the goals they define and to decide on what they wish to work. In our view, this is a crucial way to generate the best science.
The Scientific Council wishes 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.
Therefore, we regret Professor Ferrari's statement, which at best is economical with the truth. This Scientific Council remains dedicated to pursuing the mission for which the ERC was established: the support of bottom-up ground-breaking research. It is also worth noting that despite the epidemic, the ERC Executive Agency is struggling against the odds to actively process applications for our Consolidator Grants and Starting Grants, which will support researchers throughout Europe to make the discoveries of the future.
Statement by the European Commission
Professor Mauro Ferrari submitted his resignation as the President of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC) on 7 April. The resignation will take immediate effect as requested in his resignation letter.
The President is the formal representative of the European Research Council and chairs the Scientific Council, the ERC's governing body. The contract of the Scientific Council President is that of a special advisor to the European Commission. The Scientific Council, composed of eminent scientists and scholars, defines the scientific funding strategy and methodologies of the ERC.
Professor Ferrari has been the President of the ERC since 1 January 2020. His appointment was announced by the European Commission on 14 May 2019.
The Commission is grateful for the strong personal investment made by Professor Ferrari in preparing for his role at the ERC, and for his work, since the beginning of this year as ERC President.
The Commission regrets the resignation of Professor Ferrari at this early stage in his mandate as ERC President. It wishes him well with his future endeavours.
The Commission will put together a Search Committee to select a new ERC President as soon as possible. The procedure of appointment of the president of ERC is provided for in [article 6(3) of the Council Decision 2013/743/EU establishing] the specific programme implementing Horizon 2020 - the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014-2020).
In the meantime, one of the ERC’s three Vice-Presidents will assume the responsibilities of the outgoing President until a replacement is appointed.
The European Union has the most comprehensive package of measures combatting the coronavirus and it is deploying different instruments in order to have the biggest impact for solving the crisis. These measures include, for example, 18 R&D projects selected following an emergency call for proposals under Horizon 2020, the European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator pilot call, whereby start-up companies and SMEs with relevant innovations had been alerted to the possibility of applying to the next bottom-up call for proposals (budget of EUR 164 million), and the up to EUR 80 million support to CureVac from the European Investment Bank (EIB) working in collaboration with the European Commission, through the InnovFin financing mechanism which will help accelerate development of a vaccine. This package of measures has a full political buy-in of the EU Member States [BACKGROUND: EU research ministers who met on Tuesday at a videoconference welcomed the idea of synergies between all available EU programmes and funds and supported the need to attract considerable further investments in research and innovation across the EU to combat the corona crisis].
Over 50 ongoing or completed ERC projects are contributing to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing insights from several different scientific fields (virology, epidemiology, immunology, public health, medical devices, social behaviour, crisis management …).
These ERC projects form part of the EU’s broader response to the COVID-19 pandemic as regards research and innovation.
Comments on the EU 10-point action plan on coronavirus and the resignation of ERC President by MEP Christian Ehler, rapporteur for Horizon Europe
“We welcome the joint approach of Commissioner Gabriel and EU Ministers of Research to agree on Gabriel’s 10-point action plan to fight the current COVID-19 outbreak. This is not only referring to recent joint efforts in collecting data, using and investing in an European Science Cloud and to set up a joint framework for clinical trials, it’s also looking ahead to fight future pandemics.’’- says MEP Ehler.
“Commissioner Gabriel is also doing a good job to make sure all bodies involved in the implementation of Horizon 2020 are contributing to these efforts. Sadly, we acknowledged that the newly appointed ERC President has resigned following his allegations that the ERC was not doing enough to address the crisis. The Parliament, as initiator of the ERC and protector of the independency of one of the crown jewels of European research, had to learn that during the first months of his mandate, he would spend more time in the US than in Brussels. This had been broadly seen as a contradiction to the job description of the head of one of our most prestigious research institutions, brilliantly led by his two predecessors in a collegial manner.’’
“The ERC is rewarding excellent scientists from all around the world. Several of these grantees are actually working in fields which can be applied to the current situation and could help to understand and contain the outbreak, such as virology and epidemiology. As announced recently, ERC grantees are also working on AI solutions for disease detection.”
“Mr Ferrari’s recent proposal to deviate from the ERC’s researcher-driven approach was seen more as a window-dressing public relations stand on the coronavirus crisis and it was a contradiction to the legal basis of the ERC, which can and does in many ways contribute to the fight against COVID 19.”
“Starting with high expectations but never really acquainting with the independent nature of the ERC, we are sorry that things have turned out this way for a brilliant researcher and entrepreneur like Mr Ferrari. However, this should not serve as argument to accuse the ERC or the EU of not doing enough.’’
“Today’s firm and unanimous backing of the Commission’s 10-point action plan to improve cooperation and joint financial efforts against the crisis shows Europe going in the right direction.”- concludes Ehler.