Research chiefs urge more open process to pick next ERC president

07 May 2020 | News

After the sudden resignation of Mauro Ferrari, EU science administrators fault ‘inadequate’ selection process at European Research Council. It’s all ‘In the rear-view mirror’ now, adds Ferrari

Former EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas (right) on the day he announced Mauro Ferrari (centre) will replace Jean-Pierre Bourguignon (left) at the helm of the ERC. Photo: European Commission.

After the noisy departure last month of the European Research Council’s (ERC) president, several leaders of the European scientific community are pushing for improvements in the way his successor is chosen.

On April 7, Italian-American nanomedicine expert Mauro Ferrari’s tenure abruptly ended – quit, he says; asked to resign, the ERC says. In an unusually public display of animosity, both Ferrari and the agency’s governing scientific council issued duelling statements –  Ferrari blaming bad COVID-19 research coordination and a short-sighted scientific council, and the Council claiming Ferrari neither understood nor spent enough time on the job.

Now, however, the focus turns to who will succeed Ferrari at the European Commission’s most respected research agency. In an open declaration, six of Europe’s top research chiefs called for a “transparent procedure” in selecting Ferrari’s replacement, and one that includes the views of the scientific council. One of the research chiefs, Martin Stratmann, president of Germany’s Max Planck Society, issued a separate statement faulting the commission’s selection procedure as “inadequate.”

“Everybody can see that the process was flawed” by which the commission chose Ferrari in May 2019, agreed Antoine Petit, president of France’s state research agency, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. “Clearly Ferrari had an outstanding CV; he is clearly a good scientist. But clearly also it appears he was not the appropriate man for the job. It’s important that we understand what happened, so that such an error does not occur again.”

The commission has not yet said how or when it will choose Ferrari’s successor. “Work is ongoing to select the next ERC president. I am afraid I have no details to share with you at this stage,” a spokesman said.

As for Ferrari, back working in the US, he responded to Science|Business in an email, "To me it's all very distant in the rear view mirror, and I am very happy to be where I am now thanks. I wish the ERC the very best for its future, it is indeed a great research funding agency. As for everything else, it is not perfect, but the selection procedure for its president is not among the most urgent changes I would recommend.”  

The story continues…

In the weeks since Ferrari’s departure, the whole affair has continued to echo around the normally staid world of senior European research administrators. Since its founding in 2007, the ERC has grown to have one of the best reputations in global science – awarding grants in fundamental research to scientists across the EU and beyond, on an annual budget of more than €2 billion. Among its grantees are seven Nobel prize winners, four Fields medallists, and five Wolf Prize recipients.

Key to its success, its supporters say, has been that it has eked out some tiny measure of autonomy from the normally all-controlling commission bureaucracy. While it has to observe all commission regulations, its strategy is set by a 22-seat Scientific Council of eminent researchers. The president serves as chair of that council. But the tension between the scientists and the bureaucrats peaks whenever a new president is to be chosen. EU law says it’s the commission that appoints the president, but “the recruitment process and the candidate selected shall have the approval of the scientific council.”

Ferrari is an Italian-American pioneer in applying nanotechnology to cancer therapy – having worked 20 years as doctor, researcher and entrepreneur in the US. He was chosen in May 2019 to succeed as ERC president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, a French mathematician.

The selection process, however, was somewhat different than in the past, several sources say. As before, there was a formal selection committee appointed to come up with three short-listed candidates. It was chaired by Mario Monti, former Italian prime minister and EU Commissioner.

But, according to Helga Nowotny, a member of that committee and Bourguignon’s predecessor as ERC president, the committee was told it could only consider candidates who had formally applied for the job, rather than go through the usual round of asking all interested organisations to  nominate suitable candidates. The result, she said, was that the group started with only about 50 candidates, fewer than in past selections. A further limiting factor, she said, was that the UK’s imminent Brexit meant that many top British scientists were politically out of bounds; the UK is Europe’s strongest power in fundamental research.

Also, in contrast to prior years, Nowotny said, the scientific council was not consulted early on about the candidates – again, a commission constraint. And the resulting three finalists’ formal meetings with the scientific council did not go well. Two were not endorsed. Nowotny said she was surprised and does not know why, and the commission spokesman declined to discuss what happened.

A choice of one

But that left Ferrari as the sole candidate standing for selection by then research commissioner Carlos Moedas – leaving him with the choice of either appointing Ferrari, or starting the whole selection process over again at a time when a new commission was about to take office. In the end, in a statement on 14 May 2019 announcing the appointment, Moedas said Ferrari was, “the right person to take the ERC and European science to new heights.”

Ferrari took up the post on 1 January this year, and what happened next is the subject of the conflicting statements between him and the scientific council. He told the Financial Times he was resigning partly because the scientific council had refused even to consider his proposal to create a major new COVID-19 research effort. “I am afraid that I have seen enough of both the governance of science, and the political operations at the European Union,” Ferrari said.

The scientific council said it had already voted before that to seek his resignation, because he “displayed a complete lack of appreciation for the raison-d’être of the ERC” and “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.” Ferrari denies that, saying he fulfilled his contractual obligations.

How to find a president?

With the initial he-said, she-said finished, the ERC’s supporters now have several suggestions on how to pick the next president. The research chiefs’ joint statement is the latest public shot in a behind-the-scenes effort to shape the process. Besides Petit and Stratmann, the statement was signed by the heads of the Italian and Spanish state research institutes, plus Germany’s Helmholtz and Leibniz associations – collectively the “G6” group.

Petit, Stratmann and Nowotny all said that the next process must involve the scientific council at an earlier stage. “We need to have a president who is really in good relations with the scientific council,” Petit told Science|Business.

“The role of the president is not to decide” what the agency does, Petit said. “The role of the president is to encourage people to work together, to promote the ERC – but the decisions are taken by the scientific council,” of which the president is, practically speaking, the chair, rather than the CEO.

In practical terms, Nowotny said, the next selection committee should include a non-voting council member, so the whole council is kept apprised of the interview and selection process before it comes to a vote. Stratmann seconded that view. The council, “Must be involved in the selection of the nominated candidates, extensively and in good time,” he said.

A further change being advocated is that the entire procedure be more open, including publication of the selection steps and contract terms.

Another change suggested by Nowotny is that the initial pool of candidates be made much wider by allowing the more than 400 research organisations in the EU to suggest names (provided half are from outside their home country.) The commission’s applicant-only restriction, she said, limited the pool to only those people who self-select. By contrast, in a typical selection process by nomination, there is often a lot of informal sounding-out of potential candidates by the research organisations who then to put their name and CV forward after having made sure that they are willing to be candidates.

Finally, Nowotny said, there should be more consultation about the choice between the council and the commissioner, so that nobody is surprised by the final list of candidates.

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