EU science chief resigns with blast at coronavirus response


The president of the European Research Council - the EU's top scientist - has resigned after failing to persuade Brussels to set up a large-scale scientific programme to fight Covid-19.

Professor Mauro Ferrari, who started a four-year term as leader of Europe's flagship scientific institution on January 1, submitted his resignation to EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday afternoon.

"I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to Covid-19," he said in a statement to the Financial Times. "I arrived at the ERC a fervent supporter of the EU [but] the Covid-19 crisis completely changed my views, though the ideals of international collaboration I continue to support with enthusiasm."

The ERC, set up in 2007 to fund Europe's best scientists, has become one of the world's most prestigious funding agencies with a budget of around €2bn a year.

Prof Ferrari, an Italian-American pioneer of nanomedicine, said his rift with the European Commission started in early March "as it became evident that the pandemic would be a tragedy of possibly unprecedented proportions".

He said he proposed then to set up a special ERC programme to combat Covid-19. "I thought that at a time like this, the very best scientists in the world should be provided with resources and opportunities to fight the pandemic, with new drugs, new vaccines, new diagnostic tools, new behavioural dynamic approaches based on science, to replace the oft-improvised intuitions of political leaders," he said.

But the ERC Scientific Council, its governing body, unanimously rejected the idea, he said, on the grounds that its remit allows it only to fund "bottom-up" research proposed by scientists, rather than larger "top-down" programmes with objectives set by EU leaders.

“I argued that this was not the time for scientific governance to worry excessively about the subtleties of the distinctions between bottom-up versus top-down research,” said Prof Ferrari, who spent much of his career as a prominent cancer researcher in the US.

He said he got a second chance when Ms von der Leyen asked him for his views on addressing the pandemic. He then developed a plan “to which she contributed substantial directives”.

“The very fact that I worked directly with her created an internal political thunderstorm,” he said. “The proposal was passed on to different layers of European Commission administration, where I believe it disintegrated upon impact.”

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