29 Oct 2020   |   News

Exclusive: A look inside the last days of Mauro Ferrari at the European Research Council

New documents obtained by Science|Business provide fresh insight into EU funder’s decision to reject its president’s COVID-19 proposal

Mauro Ferrari

Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business.

Mauro Ferrari’s last days as president of the European Research Council were dramatic and bad-tempered.  

The Italian-American researcher, one of the world’s leading nano-scientists, fired off an angry resignation note to the Financial Times on April 7, only three months after taking up the job. In the face of “a tragedy of possibly unprecedented proportions”, Ferrari claimed he had tried and failed to convince the ERC’s governing Scientific Council, and the European Commission president, to establish a special ERC research programme directed at combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

This much has been reported before. But documents released to Science|Business following a freedom of information request to the agency shine a new light on the inner workings of the EU’s chief funder of basic science, and in particular on a significant couple of days in March, when the agency’s management had to decide how to tackle the growing COVID-19 crisis. The documents don’t rewrite the history of what happened. But they do show a united and unyielding front against a president seen as distracted in his post and seeking what one council member called “a public relations stunt” in the middle of a crisis.

Read the ERC documents
In September, in response to two freedom of information requests by Science|Business, the European Research Council released a small cache of documents about the resignation of former president Mauro Ferrari.

ERC-documents.pdf

What they also confirm, in more detail than was previously reported, is a fundamental disagreement between Ferrari and his board over their proper mission: whether, as the ERC’s enabling legislation provides, to fund basic research selected solely for its scientific quality regardless of topic, or to attempt adding a special effort targeted at the pandemic.

This issue, of “bottom-up” research driven by a scientist’s own instincts vs. “top-down” research prompted by a funder’s policy goals, reverberates across the science world. While some funders, such as the ERC, by law focus on investigator-driven research, others take a broader view. For instance, on October 20, the Wellcome Trust in the UK – the largest charitable research funding body in Europe – announced a new strategy that, while continuing “discovery” grants, will also encourage research on three specific health problems: infectious diseases, global warming and mental health. “Science alone is not enough. It needs support from many areas of research and innovation,” the new strategy states. 

Back on the agenda

And the issue is now live again in Brussels, as EU budget negotiators meet to discuss topics including whether to spend more of the planned €750 billion pandemic-recovery fund on COVID-19 research, including at the ERC itself. That is, ironically, exactly what Ferrari was advocating inside the ERC in March: target some money to COVID-19. “If the ERC is seen as detached from the most tragic of priorities and needs of the community, and unwilling to adapt its ways to help at these tragic times,” Ferrari warned his council  at the time, “it will be near impossible to find anyone willing to defend us on the nuances of Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down research.” 

That dialectic is on full display in the ERC documents released to Science|Business. In an urgent message to the 19 active ERC Scientific Council members on March 18, Ferrari presents his impassioned argument for setting up a temporary research programme to help tackle the pandemic. It is, he said, “an extraordinary health care tragedy” that “is an adversely transformational event in human history.” 

The deliberations took place over email, when Ferrari was himself holed up in the US awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. 

The written council member replies to Ferrari’s proposal – many of them terse rejections – came on March 18-19, and prompted an extraordinary row that would see the EU’s top scientist leave his post a few weeks later. 

“Making a call specifically on COVID-19 won't solve the immediate problem and won't bring in outstanding applications, rather mediocre ones from opportunistic scientists. It will be seen by many members of our scientific community as a public relations stunt not worthy of the ERC,” wrote Margaret Buckingham, emeritus director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.  

Buckingham’s response also hinted at wider frustrations with Ferrari’s management of the agency – frustrations that would soon spill out into the open. “I am surprised that one of your major preoccupations is not how to keep our grant system going, which our colleagues in the agency are valiantly trying to do, under very difficult circumstances,” she writes. Her comments reflected a growing feeling inside the ERC that Ferrari was not engaging sufficiently with his post and was spending too much time in America, where he continued some part-time industry and academic roles. 

‘The house is on fire…’

“I appreciate your wholehearted initiative, my answer is a clear NO,” wrote another member, identified as Manuel A. in the documents. Council member Manuel Arellano, professor of econometrics at the Centre for Monetary and Financial Studies in Madrid, did not respond to a request for comment. “If anything, the unprecedented emergency in which we are immersed reinforces my belief that allocating resources to foster undirected scientific breakthroughs is a critical ingredient for the ability of our societies to face the unpredictable,” Manuel A's email reads. 

“True, the house is on fire, but even in those circumstances [every]body has to do their [jobs] for the benefit of all, and ours is to keep the ERC going for what it is,” adds council member Manuel A. 

A few days later, on March 27, all the active members of the Scientific Council “individually and unanimously” requested that Ferrari resign. In the ensuing drama, Ferrari sent his letter to the Financial Times – the equivalent of a ‘you can’t fire me, I quit’ move – and the normally quiet agency found itself the centre of a political and PR hurricane. The council published a blistering rejoinder, but then clammed up, declining interview requests. 

That reticence to speak is unusual for an agency that, by law and habit, prides itself on transparency. In June, Science|Business filed two freedom of information requests; under EU law, the Commission is required to disclose requested documents unless they hit a very long list of possible exceptions. The ERC at first rejected release of all but a few documents, but after a second round of requests it released in September a small cache of documents, on which this article is partly based. 

Science|Business over the past month also attempted again to interview individual council members – but with one exception hit silence. Council member Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam, said he would not approach the dispute with Ferrari, “any differently if it happened today. The task of the ERC is to support excellent basic research, with quality as the sole criterion.” Other members didn’t respond: “I have been asked to let you know that they do not have anything to add to the (April) statement that was published at the time,” emailed Anthony Lockett, head of communications at the European Research Council Executive Agency, on September 21. 
    
Following Ferrari’s departure, his predecessor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon was parachuted back in to the ERC’s top seat, with an urgent mission to draw a line under a rocky few months and pull the agency through a looming budget fight. “Actually, the pandemic provided a very valuable opportunity to verify the relevance of this bottom-up approach – so not instructing researchers  what to do but on the contrary trusting them and giving them the freedom to cut new ground wherever it may lie,” Bourguignon said. 

Ferrari, who has returned to life as a professor and entrepreneur in the US, said in an email that he did not want to comment further on the matter. 

The policy dispute – explained

To understand the dispute, it helps to understand the ERC – by any measure, an unusual Brussels creation. The ERC provides money for scientists seeking breakthroughs on the frontiers of knowledge. It works out of a seven-year budget of €13.1 billion, some 17 per cent of the EU’s total research spending for 2014 - 2020. Since its establishment in 2007, it has supported seven Nobel prize winners and four Fields medallists. The agency credits its funding as the stimulus for over 150,000 scientific journal articles, and points to an independent study, which says that at least 80 per cent of the projects it backs have led to scientific breakthroughs or major advances.

The recipe for this success, according to its fans, is the agency’s “bottom-up” nature: its open invitation to applicants to pitch whatever research they feel passionately about. It periodically announces “calls” for ideas, which are judged by panels of international experts. The rationale, according to the 2013 EU law authorising the agency: “Operating across Europe on a competitive basis, the ERC is able to draw on a wider pool of talents and ideas than would be possible for any national scheme. The best researchers and the best ideas compete against each other. Applicants know they have to perform at the highest level, the reward being flexible funding on a level playing field, irrespective of local bottlenecks or the availability of national funding.”

This bottom-up methodology is a feature cherished and doggedly protected by the Scientific Council. Indeed, it’s written into the law: “Scientific excellence shall be the sole criterion on which ERC grants are awarded. The ERC shall operate on a 'bottom-up' basis without predetermined priorities.” 

The flipside approach in public programmes is “top-down” funding of applied research, and it is more common in Brussels and other capitals. In the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D programme (of which the ERC is a part), 61 per cent of the budget is allocated by picking the policy goal first – say, controlling infectious diseases or strengthening the aerospace industry – and inviting applications second. Likewise in Washington, most R&D money goes towards specific policy goals; and under the Trump administration, even the bottom-up National Science Foundation is mounting more and more goal-oriented grant programmes. Not surprisingly, politicians prefer targeted research to solve problems; but among the scientific elite, this is often viewed as suggestive of greater political input – and unlikely to produce the breakthroughs that move science and technology forward in great leaps.
    
The new president

Into this debate stepped Ferrari, who became ERC president on January 1, 2020. His title sounded grand, but his legal powers were limited. 

Technically, as president he chairs the agency’s governing Scientific Council. Under the law, the ERC “operates autonomously: an independent Scientific Council made up of scientists, engineers and scholars of the highest repute and expertise, of both women and men in different age groups, establishes the overall scientific strategy and has full authority over decisions on the type of research to be funded.” But in actual fact, all the ERC support staff work for a special body, the ERC Executive Agency, that reports to the Commission, not the Scientific Council. This unusual arrangement has at times sparked sharp disputes between scientists and Eurocrats – including the angry resignation in 2019 of the executive agency’s then-director Pablo Amor. 

Before coming to the ERC, Ferrari was best known as a pioneer in applying nanotechnology to the development of cancer therapies. Born and raised in Italy, he left for graduate work in the US and eventually landed at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, where he chaired the department of nanomedicine and biomedical engineering. In 2010, he became president and chief executive of the Houston Methodist Research Institute. He had experience setting up a programme of nanotechnology research for the US National Cancer Institute. He is named on around 480 research publications with more than 20,000 citations, and on dozens of patents.

But Ferrari was cut from a different cloth from the usual figures that populate Brussels: here was a highly outgoing scientist who had spent most of his professional life in the US, and loved talking about his music – he plays the saxophone – and basketball. And his selection as ERC president had a surprise twist, which was only disclosed after his resignation: he was the only choice offered up to then-Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, after two other short-listed candidates dropped out. Moedas faced the option of confirming Ferrari or restarting the entire search process. Once in office, Ferrari started making grand plans to promote what he called “super-disciplinary” research – eclectic, high-impact.

Ferrari’s plan

And then the pandemic struck. In his internal messages from March, Ferrari asked the council to consider supporting “a special focused initiative on excellent, breakthrough, blue sky, frontier, investigator-initiated research on topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic, open to all fields of research.” His message didn’t discuss the legal issues, of whether the ERC, given its limited statute, could do that. Instead, he urged action. Failure to do something different to fight the virus would come back to haunt the agency, Ferrari suggested. It could lose out on budget if it isn’t seen to be jumping into the pandemic rescue effort, he argued. But “the fundamental risk is that we do not follow what our individual consciences tell to each of us. The biggest risk is that we do not do all we can to help, at this time of great tragedy and need,” he said. 

In the replies that followed his proposal, the ERC Scientific Council members make it very clear they couldn’t go along with him. “My vote is also a clear NO,” wrote Ben Feringa, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Groningen, and the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “This would be a strong deviation from our core principles,” wrote Michael Kramer, director and scientific member at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn. “Even in these times, I think we must avoid this and cannot let this happen.”

Some of the council members also framed Ferrari’s proposal as impractical, and explained that a pandemic wasn’t the time to ask researchers to fill out lengthy EU proposals. Buckingham, whose Paris research centre is working on a COVID-19 vaccine with other funding sources, said she was “very aware of the huge effort that is going into research on this coronavirus. There is no lack of funds or personnel. The last thing that these scientists would do at present is take the time to apply for an ERC grant.”

“Opening a specific call now will certainly attract applications, but not of the type that the ERC wants/need to push forward,” wrote Paola Bovolenta, research professor and head of the development and differentiation department at the Severo Ochoa Centre for Molecular Biology in Madrid. 

“There will be no time to come up with great ideas. The field is too confused and information is often contradictory. The innovative ideas that you state are needed will only come from thinking in depth to the problem,” she said. 

Others said the fact that no one could have predicted COVID-19 only confirmed the ERC’s long-term mission to fund research that goes off in different directions. “If anything, the current pandemic has made the need for ERC's bottom up, blue skies research, even more prominent,” emailed Nektarios Tavernarakis, chairman of the board of directors at the Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas in Greece. “It is this approach that stands any chance of protecting us, in the face of unpredictable threats. Today it's SARS-CoV-2, tomorrow it's going to be something else.” 

And then came the public fight

Ferrari’s next move, to complain publicly in the Financial Times, shocked the council members. They issued a damning statement on April 8, saying that he “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.” The EU had other research tools beyond the ERC that it was already throwing at COVID-19, under its Horizon 2020 R&D programme. By the end of 2020, officials say more than €1 billion will have been spent on coronavirus-related research. 

But there were other reasons for the noisy divorce. The council also accused Ferrari of being “at best economical with truth” and of a breach of protocol by going over their heads to approach European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. And, though allowed to spend 20 per cent of his time on outside activities, his other appointments – including on the board of US biotech Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals – bothered council members. “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 council stated.

Ferrari, from his side, accused the EU of failing to live up to its ideals in dealing with the pandemic, writing that he “lost faith in the system itself”. The pandemic was like an X-ray of Brussels, allowing him to see all its defective parts. “In time of emergencies people, and institutions, revert to their deepest nature and reveal their true character,” he said. 

‘Chapter closed’

Today, Bourguignon, the interim ERC president, says the agency should continue to “take the long view and focus on frontier research. One needs to get prepared for the next crisis, and of course nobody knows which form it will take. Focusing all efforts on one topic is the best way of not being prepared for it,” he said. 

The search is ongoing for a new ERC president. “For me, the Mauro Ferrari episode is closed and the page has been turned,” says Helga Nowotny, ETH Zurich professor emerita and former president of the ERC, who is heading the recruitment panel for the Commission. 

To find the right fit, she promises that, “This time, we will have to closely scrutinise any potential conflict of interest even beyond its legal definition and in terms of scientific openness.” Nowotny also suggested she wants to find someone who will commit fully to the ERC way of doing things. 

“Especially in post-COVID-19 times, the necessity to invest in basic frontier research is indispensable, a fact that is not acknowledged everywhere. The temptation to focus only on immediate, short-term remedies and benefits seems overwhelming,” she says.

The editor wishes to thank Christopher Docksey, of Maastricht University's European Centre on Privacy and Cybersecurity, for his contribution to this article.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up