The gospel of ERC’s new president: super-disciplinary science

04 Feb 2020 | News

Mauro Ferrari says scientists should get rid of ‘disciplinary goggles’ and combine expertise to create new fields of scientific research

Mauro Ferrari. Photo: World Economic Forum/Faruk Pinjo

At times, when talking to him, it seems there is little that could dishearten the new president of the European Research Council (ERC).

At the age of 43, Mauro Ferrari moved from a successful academic career in mechanical engineering to study medicine, going on to become a founding father of the emerging field of nanomedicine, while singing and playing the saxophone in a rhythm and blues band. And that’s on top of playing basketball in Italy and studying mathematics at the University of Padua.

Now, at the age of 60, the man of many talents has taken on a new role at the helm of the EU’s top research funding body, with an intention to make “super-disciplinary” science go mainstream.

For scientists to be truly creative, Ferrari told Science|Business, they should ditch the “conventional disciplinary goggles” and learn “to see through walls, to see around corners.”

There are many labels on scientific research that spans more than one field: interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, and so on, but Ferrari proposes a slightly different notion to capture the evolution of scientific discovery and how new fields of knowledge come into existence: super-disciplinary. “I like super stuff; I am an enthusiast,” he said.

Ferrari denounces tribalism in science and says scientists are often too busy putting up and defending walls between disciplines, when in fact they should “fly” above these walls to “see where you need to get, to see solutions to problems.”

To promote this idea at the ERC, Ferrari said it could rethink the way it puts together some of the panels that review research proposals. “There is this notion emerging that perhaps we can move to dynamic panels,” he said. This means that, when appropriate, evaluators could be picked and assembled into review panels so their expertise mirrors the complexity of the proposal.

This idea will be among the first issues Ferrari will discuss with the ERC’s governing body, the scientific council, at their first formal meeting together later this month.

To further implement his super-disciplinarity paradigm, Ferrari also wants to talk to the scientific council about the possibility of updating the ERC’s synergy grants, which fund scientists whose projects span two or more disciplines, so that more junior researchers get access. As things stand most synergy grants are awarded to senior researchers. “The [ERC] scientific council has already started thinking about how we address that question,” he said. “It need not be that way.”

‘My job is to serve’

Ferrari emphasised that he isn’t in the position to set policy himself. Rather, his job is to “serve” the ERC’s scientific council.

Scientific excellence will remain the main criteria in evaluating ERC projects, despite demands from low-performing member states to spread research money more equally. Ferrari attended the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, where he met with prime ministers of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia and urged them to invest more in their national R&D systems as the route to their scientists winning more ERC grants. “It is not [the ERC’s] job to put [in] money based on a geographical claim,” he said.

At the same time, the ERC should keep its bottom-up approach to funding, despite the new European Commission’s focus on “top-down” policy priorities, such as greening and digitising the economy. “We are not going to tell scientists what to study,” Ferrari said.

Along with the new role at the ERC, Ferrari will keep his positions as affiliate professor in pharmaceutical science at the University of Washington and as a member of the board of the US biotech company, Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals. He said he will receive payment for his work at Arrowhead, but that the Commission had approved it all before he joined the ERC. “The way this job is set up, it allows for some time for external activities,” he said.

Fighting for the ERC budget

With the overall EU budget for 2021-2027 still under negotiation, Ferrari did not exclude the possibility that potential cuts would also affect his turf. If that happens, “we are going to be fighting,” he said.

In fact, Ferrari would actually like to see the budget increase. Until now, for every 10 projects that received the ERC’s excellence mark and are funded, there were another four highly marked projects for which there isn’t enough money. “[The money] we have does not keep up with the excellent science that could be produced,” he said.

A higher budget would mean not only keeping more talent, but also more international cooperation and the ERC delivering its mission to bring the best scientists in the world to Europe. “We could target a tenfold the level of excellent science without any dilution, if we have enough money,” Ferrari said.

A music theory for innovation

Mariya Gabriel, the new EU research and innovation commissioner has recently announced plans to create a European single market for research and innovation, in an effort to make national and EU funding programmes work seamlessly along common objectives.

For Ferrari, a successful innovation policy would encourage all stakeholders to come up with ideas to solve both immediate and long-term problems.

While working in the US, Ferrari spent a lot of time with jazz and blues musicians. Himself a keen saxophonist, he says with jazz you never know where a good idea will be coming from – the sax, the piano, the bass or elsewhere.

That is why, Ferrari argues EU R&I policies should invite around the table as many talented people as it can, and encourage them to brainstorm ideas that transcend traditional disciplines and create new ones. Like jazz musicians, scientists also have “a great perception of the Zeitgeist”.

And Ferrari vows to keep finding time for music, on top of all his other activities.  

At his first staff meeting at the ERC, Ferrari introduced himself by singing the iconic song by Louis Armstrong, “What a wonderful world” to underline his message that the opportunities for science and the agency are bright.

And two weeks from now, he will go to Houston, Texas to play sax and sing at a benefit concert featuring blues singer Gladys Knight. If she likes his show, he hopes to follow up by playing live with her on stage – a test that he sees as far tougher than a PhD viva exam. “I will see if she's gracious enough to bring me on stage with her to sing ‘Midnight train to Georgia’ or something like that,” Ferrari said.

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