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Research Funding

European Research Council president resigns amid dispute over coronavirus response

Mauro Ferrari quits after three months at the helm

by Laura Howes
April 8, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 14

 

09814-polcon2-ferrari.jpg
Credit: World Economic Forum/Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary
Mauro Ferrari spoke at a World Economic Forum press conference on climate change in January.

Mauro Ferrari has resigned as the president of the European Research Council (ERC), provoking a public spat. An Italian-American expert in nanomedicine, Ferrari resigned his position on April 7, just 3 months into the role. He then fired off a two-page memo in which he criticized the European Commission’s approach to COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV-2.

However, other ERC leaders hit back at Ferrari’s criticism, saying in a statement that his version of events “at best is economical with the truth.” The statement also said that Ferrari’s resignation followed a unanimous vote of no confidence.

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On a webinar to discuss European research funding for COVID-19 that was held by the organization Science|Business on April 8, former ERC president Helga Nowotny expressed disappointment that Ferrari “failed to understand” his role. The ERC president is expected to spend 80% of their time on that job, she said, but Ferrari’s commitments in the US meant he did not spend enough time getting to know the ERC and his new colleagues. Ferrari remained a part-time affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy in Seattle after he became ERC president. He is also on the board of directors of Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals.

One of Ferrari’s key complaints in his memo is that he wanted the ERC to establish a special program directed at combating COVID-19. The rest of the ERC leadership rejected this proposal. The ERC on principle does not target funding to specific areas. Instead, its mission is “to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence,” its website says.

Criticism of the ERC and its funding mechanisms is not unique to Ferrari. However, Ferrari’s concerns are “misplaced,” says James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute, which studies how research is funded, practiced, and evaluated. Wilsdon adds that “midcrisis is not the moment to attempt an ill-thought-out redesign of EU’s research architecture.”

Ferrari’s resignation came the same day that European research ministers announced a 10-point plan to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, including potential extra research funding.

The ERC says it plans to put together a search committee to replace Ferrari as soon as possible. In the interim, one of the ERC’s three vice presidents will assume the responsibilities of president until a replacement is appointed.

CORRECTION

This story was updated on April 9, 2020, to reflect that Mauro Ferrari's nationality is Italian-American, not Anglo-American.

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