Mauro Ferrari: Why I left the ERC

16 Apr 2020 | News

In a written Q&A with Science|Business, the ex-president of the European Research Council gives his reasons for leaving the post after only three months

Science|Business: You left your post last week with a very public resignation letter. How did your relationship with the European Research Council’s scientific council crumble?

A: I do not think of the relationship between the scientific council and myself as "crumbled". I have no animus whatsoever against them. I just respectfully disagree with their opposition to a focused initiative on Covid-19, in addition and in parallel to the existing ERC bottom-up funding programmes. I proposed that we should sit down and discuss whether such an initiative would be of interest to them, and, if so, what form it should take. They unanimously rejected the motion that we even meet to discuss.

That in my mind was an irreversible step of separation. If they had agreed to even meet and show and interest in the cause, and after all due diligence we had then concluded that this initiative was impossible, I would have accepted that without a problem. But not even meeting to discuss, explore, and ask questions, that I found difficult to accept. And I still respectfully disagree with that position.  

Q: You have been very critical of the EU’s response to COVID-19. Did Brussels blink at a vital moment in history?

A: Some positives, some negatives. Among the greatest positives are certainly some of the [EU research programme Horizon 2020] focused [initiatives] against COVID-19; the excellent clinical trial coordination and selection work done for new drugs and vaccines by the EMA (European Medicines Agency); and the work of the ERC as well, for future pandemics.

The negatives in my mind are the resistance to cohesion programmes in support of the hardest-hit countries, the fact that member states immediately resorted to isolationist border policies, and the continued disconnect between the greatest blue-sky science and the innovation infrastructure that can effectively and safely bring new science into clinical use.

I will always be a great supporter of the ERC and the bottom-up programmes it funds; my respectful suggestion now from the outside is that the ERC should be more effectively connected to focussed initiatives and innovation programmes, to help facilitate the translation of their great science into the service of the current needs of society.

Q: What do you think is urgently needed to fight Covid-19?

A: New therapeutic agents, new vaccines, new diagnostic systems, new behavioural models for reducing the contagion. All of these need to be based on novel scientific discoveries, and partnered with an effective innovation infrastructure to bring the discoveries to the world. I am a firm believer in bottom-up research, and I would not recommend a "plan" [to fight COVID-19], that is, a set of methodological prescriptions to make the needed progress.

My intuition, for what it's worth, is that the necessary breakthrough discoveries will come from collaborating teams of scientists from different disciplines – but of course I do not know for sure. So, I would simply make resources available for the best creative scientists to pursue their visions and insights, in true frontier fashion - because without out-of-box thinking it will be very hard to beat this pandemic, and those that will follow.   

Q. One of your criticisms of the EU was a lack of a coordinated approach on COVID-19. But there are ongoing global efforts to coordinate vaccine research – from governments, from organisations like the Wellcome Trust and CEPI (which the European Commission has financially contributed to). So what’s missing?

A: Great that these organisations are working together – the more that happens, the better. Scale is really important. The ERC is the best bottom-up research agency in the world, and many great, extremely creative scientists are supported by its funding portfolio. I think it would be wonderful if these great scientists were tight[ly] connected and involved with efforts to bring new drugs and vaccines into health care applications, and there was an effective medical translational and innovation infrastructure around them, in coordination with the ERC. 

Q. You have said you will announce a special ‘Covid-19 coalition’. When will we hear about this? What can you tell us about the coalition – will it be US-based research bodies only or will it include organisations from around the world (Including Europe)? How will it be funded? Will the organisations you’re affiliated with – Washington University and Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals – be involved? What exactly do you want to target with this coalition?

A: It will address a broad portfolio of coordinated strategies to address the COVID-19 pandemic – that is all I can say about it at this, time, the official announcement will issue soon. Neither the University of Washington nor Arrowhead will be involved.

Q: What have you planned in the future more broadly?

A: My professional life has revolved around blue-sky, multidisciplinary, frontier research, and its applications in the development of new medicines and medical devices. I will continue to do exactly that, with a special focus on COVID-19, and future pandemics. 

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