LONDON – An unseemly row has broken out at the heart of EU science, with Mauro Ferrari, head of the European Research Council (ERC), accusing the European Commission of failing to coordinate and fund R&D needed to combat COVID-19.
In a blistering statement on April 7, Ferrari, who took up the post of president of ERC only three months ago, renounced the rejection of his plan for an emergency ERC-funded research program to fight the coronavirus.
“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,” Ferrari said, adding he had tendered his resignation.
On Wednesday, April 8, the 19-member ERC scientific council hit back, saying its members had unanimously voted to ask Ferrari to resign 11 days earlier on March 27. Ferrari’s statement is “at best economical with the truth,” the council said. He had failed to properly engage with the ERC and had missed many important meetings.
The European Commission was in discussions to smooth his way out of the door, but Ferrari got his retaliation in first, with his allegation the EU was failing to properly marshal its scientific resources in the face of “a tragedy of possibly unprecedented proportions.”
It’s evident that even though Ferrari had only been in the post since the start of the year, relations had been souring for some time. The council – made up of scientific luminaries, including Nobel laureate Ben Feringa and Janet Thornton, director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, accused Ferrari of “displaying 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.”
Ferrari’s proposal for a prescriptive, top-down program of basic research in COVID-19 is at odds with the ERC’s remit, which is to fund individual proposals from the best scientists, but he argued the current crisis was no time for such niceties.
Christian Ehler, Member of the European Parliament, who has oversight of the Horizon 2020 R&D program through which ERC is funded, said Ferrari’s plan was “a window-dressing public relations stand on the coronavirus crisis and it was a contradiction of the legal basis of the ERC.”
Ferrari, an Italian American who is credited with being a founding father of nanomedicine, looked like a prize catch when his appointment to head ERC was announced in the middle of last year. In his most recent posting from 2010-2019, he was president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Hospital Research Institute, where he also served as executive vice president of Houston Methodist Hospital, and senior associate dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
Alongside a stellar academic career, he has a reputation as an entrepreneur, having founded several companies.
‘Four months of glorious misunderstanding’
The terms of his contract at the helm of one the most prestigious research funding agencies in the world, with a budget of €2 billion (US$2.2 billion) per annum, allowed him to devote 20% of his time to non-ERC duties. Ferrari retained a number of interests in the U.S., including being a paid main board member of gene silencing specialist Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Pasadena, Calif., and affiliate professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Washington.
The ERC council complained that Ferrari’s “multiple external enterprises” took a lot of time and effort and appeared on several occasions “to take precedence” over his commitment to ERC.
When the ERC was working with the rest of the EU institutions and the European Commission to organize an emergency R&D response to COVID-19 in February, “[Ferrari] was simply not present, he was in the U.S.” Ehler said.
“Weeks ago [the EU] decided on firsthand measures, it was done quickly and in an amazingly coordinated way,” Ehler said. When Ferrari came back to Brussels, most measures had been taken. “He wanted to set up a top-down program, but it didn’t make sense,” said Ehler. ERC currently is funding 50 basic science projects in a number of fields of relevance to the COVID-19 response, and those have been integrated into the broader response.
The EU response to the pandemic includes €137.5 million for diagnostics, therapies and vaccines, with a further €164 million for startups developing relevant products. There is a 10-point action plan to fight COVID-19, including joint efforts in collecting and using data, and setting set up a joint framework for clinical trials.
The European Commission said that package of measures, pulling together resources from different EU programs, has the full political buy-in of the EU member states. EU research ministers who met by videoconference on April 7, welcomed the idea and supported the need for further investment in research and innovation across the EU to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Ehler said there has been “four months of glorious misunderstanding” of what the job of being head of ERC entailed. Even before COVID-19 took hold, there was problem of Ferrari balancing his U.S. activities and fulfilling his ERC responsibilities.
At the same time, Ferrari seemed not to appreciate the collegiate ethos of the ERC. “He’s not a CEO running a company; he’s running a scientific council of 19 members,” said Ehler. “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.”