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EU’s chief scientist quits over European coronavirus response

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Medical biologists prepare to handle a swab to test a medical worker for the COVID-19 disease at a drive-in test center in Paris, France. (Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Mauro Ferrari, the president of the European Research Council (ERC), is stepping down as head of Europe’s leading scientific institution after just four months after he was unable to push through his plans for a programme to fight coronavirus.

“I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to COVID-19,” Ferrari told the Financial Times, which first reported the news.

“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,” Ferrari said.

Ferrari, a nano-scientist whose term as head of the ERC was meant to last four years, told the FT that his problems began in March “as it became evident that the pandemic would be a tragedy of possibly unprecedented proportions.”

He wanted to establish an ERC programme to respond to the pandemic, deploying resources to help the “very best scientists in the world” work on “new drugs, new vaccines, new diagnostic tools, new behavioural dynamic approaches based on science, to replace the oft-improvised intuitions of political leaders.”

Read more: Wellcome Trust calls on businesses to donate $8bn for COVID-19 research

However, his ambitious plans were not welcomed, he said, noting that: “The ERC Scientific Council, its governing body, unanimously rejected the idea,” arguing that as an institution it is only allowed to fund bottom-up research proposals by scientists, rather than 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,” Ferrari said.

The Italian-American scientist said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen invited him to share his thoughts on how to tackle the pandemic, saying “the very fact that I worked directly with her created an internal political thunderstorm. The proposal was passed on to different layers of European Commission administration, where I believe it disintegrated upon impact.”

The European Commission noted on Wednesday 8 April that there were 50 ERC projects currently underway. “The European Union has the most comprehensive package of measures combating the coronavirus and it is deploying different instruments in order to have the biggest impact for solving the crisis,” the Commission said.