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Research Funding


COVID-19’s devastation means research-funding rules no longer apply

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
April 19, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 15


When I first heard the news that the head of the European Research Council was leaving the job after just 3 months, I thought: “Does he know that there’s a global pandemic going on out there?” Mauro Ferrari, a leading expert in nanomedicine, resigned his position on April 7 after a unanimous vote of no confidence by members of the ERC’s governing body, its Scientific Council.

A photo of Mauro Ferrari.
Credit: World Economic Forum/Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary
Mauro Ferrari spoke at a World Economic Forum press conference on climate change in January.

The ERC is the European Union’s most prominent funder of basic research. As such, it has €2.2 billion to spend on “frontier research in any scientific domain, including social sciences, humanities and interdisciplinary studies.” Historically, the ERC has supported only basic research proposals and does not favor particular fields.

And that’s where the problem started. Ferrari was aware that the ERC “does not specify focus areas or its funding objectives, nor does it consider beneficial impact on society as a funding criterion,” as he acknowledges in the statement that he sent to the Financial Times. But he still wanted to establish a special program to combat COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, because of “the expected burden of death, suffering, societal transformation, and economic devastation.”

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His colleagues on the Scientific Council disagreed and argued that he had failed to understand his role. They also criticized Ferrari for not spending enough time getting to know the ERC and his new colleagues because of his commitments in the US. I will not elaborate on how he chose to spend his time, but the matter over how or whether COVID-19 research should be funded is worthy of comment.

I understand that the EU’s rules prevent the ERC from specifying research areas. I support funding curiosity-driven science and encouraging researchers’ unrestrained exploration and discovery efforts, whatever they may be, under normal circumstances.

But these are not normal circumstances. Millions of people around the world are still under stay-at-home orders. As I write this, there have been more than 2 million cases of COVID-19 and over 130,000 deaths. Unemployment is rife, and we face the biggest economic downturn since the Great Recession. If now is not the time to bend or break the rules, mobilize into swift action, and take risks, when is?

Ferrari started in his role in January, just as the pandemic started to roll into Europe. He understood the rules, but he also understood the devastation that would ensue. Was he wrong to ask that the ERC support the global fight? In my view, this is a case of force majeure that would free the ERC temporarily from its obligation to strictly follow its funding rules.

Other organizations around the world have not hesitated to redeploy their resources so that they and others can work against COVID-19. Top drug company R&D leaders swiftly formed aCOVID-19 R&D consortium to push forward therapeutics and vaccines at unprecedented speed. And on page 22 of this week’s issue, Associate Editor Sam Lemonick tells us how Alibaba Group, Amazon, Google, IBM, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NASA, and Tencent, to name a few, are giving scientists special access to some of the world’s most powerful computers—including Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit, currently the world’s most powerful computer—and offering consulting services from their staff to accelerate research to treat or prevent COVID-19.

This computing power will focus on building models of the virus’s proteins based on the work that had been done in January to deduce the genome of the novel coronavirus. These models are crucial to our understanding of how the virus interacts with human cells so we can create therapies to fight COVID-19.

Perhaps the ERC could take a leaf from these organizations’ books and consider the realities of the world around us right now. Force majeure, act of God—call it what you may, but the rules no longer apply.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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