So what really is going on in Brussels regarding the ERC? I have had no direct contact with them in recent months, nor ever met Professor Ferrari, the short-lived and outgoing (outgone?) President. I cannot spill any beans because I have no beans to spill, but I did spend six years sitting on the Scientific Council (ScC) and perhaps can read a little between the lines. The extraordinary statement that they have released in the wake of Ferrari’s ‘resignation’, deprecates his own statement with the damning indictment that it ‘at best is economical with the truth.’
I served on the Scientific Council from 2013-18. I joined as legal niceties around the construction of the new Horizon2020 programme were being worked out, niceties which – I must admit – did not particularly excite me at the time. In hindsight I could see just how important thrashing out the details were: of what could and could not be funded, in which ‘instruments’, on what timescales, with what groupings making decisions on different parts of the grant-awarding and just how subsequent monitoring should be carried out. In the UK we may have been told, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, just how full of bureaucracy Brussels was and what a waste of time it was. There is undoubtedly bureaucracy in Brussels, but some of it is very necessary, as the current saga will make plain.
So let me correct some misunderstandings. The President of the ERC Scientific Council is not the ‘EU Science Chief’ as the FT, who broke the story today, described him. Since Anne Glover left there has been no such person, despite how newspapers have described Ferrari. Nor is he ‘the man they [the Council] chose to lead them three months ago.’ On the contrary, the press release issued on his appointment makes very clear how the appointment was made:
‘The appointment of Professor Mauro Ferrari is the outcome of a rigorous selection process in which an independent Search Committee made a thorough study of all applications received and, on that basis, prepared a short list of candidates for the position. The list was submitted to the ERC Scientific Council, which channelled its comments to European Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who made the final decision.’
The Scientific Council may, if the process I saw during my own stint was replicated this time around, have had some minor input into the choice, but they certainly did not themselves ‘choose’ Ferrari – or indeed anyone else. One can argue about the rights and wrongs of this decoupling from the Scientific Council, but that is how it is done. Just as when new members are appointed, the Council and its President are not involved in that process either. Indeed, there were times when the Council was in the dark about who was being appointed when, almost until the day they turned up at a Council meeting.
What is the mission of the ERC? To quote their own web-pages (already updated to note the end of the tenure of Ferrari)
‘The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields, on the basis of scientific excellence.
The ERC complements other funding activities in Europe such as those of the national research funding agencies, and is a flagship component of Horizon 2020, the European Union’s Research Framework Programme for 2014 to 2020.’
Their mission is not to solve societal problems – there are other EU programmes to cover these – but to do frontier science. That is not to say they don’t contribute; of course they do. In 2018 an independent review of a random cross-section of grants said
‘Almost half of the projects have already left their mark on the economy, society and policy-making, whilst around three quarters are foreseen to do so on the medium- and long-term.’
That’s not a bad hit rate for a young funding agency.
If Ferrari thought, while simultaneously accepting that ERC’s role is to fund ‘elites of excellence’ bottom-up research, that
‘in my idealistic fantasies, I thought that at times like these, the very best should pick up their best weapons, and go to the frontier, to the front-lines, to defeat this formidable enemy. 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….’
he obviously had not mastered his brief as leading an organisation with the mission I’ve listed above. Legally, they were in no place to do what he was asking and the lawyers would have had a field day if they’d tried.
However, although this difference of opinion may have been dressed up simply as an argument about whether or not the ERC should directly fund some COVID-19 research, it is clear from the Scientific Council’s extraordinary statement, as un-Brussels-like as it is possible to imagine, that the differences ran far deeper and more painfully. To quote just a tiny part of their published statement:
‘During his three-month term in office, Professor Ferrari displayed 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. … He did not understand the context of the ERC within the EU’s Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020.’
And later that he
‘displayed a lack of engagement with the ERC, failing to participate in many important meetings, spending extensive time in the USA and failing to defend the ERC’s programme and mission when representing the ERC.’
These are damning words indeed – you may want to read the whole statement! I know that the Scientific Council will not have made their statement lightly. It would seem – I’m speculating here – that within three months he had already lost the trust of the Council and the COVID-19 story was a last straw, albeit maybe it looked like a convenient issue on which Ferrari could hang his resignation hat. I know Oxbridge Colleges occasionally lose their Masters/Principals/ Wardens etc at high speed, and it must always be down either to mismatched expectations or extraordinary carelessness. The former would appear to be at play in this situation.
I should conclude by saying that you should not not go away thinking that the ERC research is so ‘frontier’ it is irrelevant to COVID-19. You can find a compilation of funded projects of relevance to the current pandemic here, crossing all three of their scientific domains. I know that if a grant-holder wanted to divert some of their resources to address a part of this crisis, that would be perfectly feasible for them, as the Scientific Council’s statement makes clear. If the EU wants to fund an integrated programme on COVID-19, they have plenty of mechanisms open to them to do so, as Ferrari himself admits in his statement. The ERC has neither the legal mandate nor the appetite to do so themselves. Their statement makes plain their total disappointment at the culmination of what, as has now become manifest, must clearly have been three very unhappy months.