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ERC President Resigned Over COVID-19 Response: Too Much Or Too Little Bureaucracy?


ERC President Resigned Over COVID-19 Response: Too Much Or Too Little Bureaucracy?

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On April 7th, Professor Mauro Ferrari, a distinguished nanomedicine researcher resigned from his post as president of the European Research Council (ERC). [pdf]

In his letter of resignation, he made a very emotion-filled case of idealism and that he was let down by the ERC.

“My tenure as President of the European Research Council (ERC) has come to an end, as earlier today I tendered my resignation to President Ursula von der Leyen. My appointment was announced in May 2019, to take office on January 1, 2020. In the intervening 7 months I volunteered my time to the ERC, motivated by my enthusiasm for the great reputation of this world-leading funding agency, my commitment to the idealistic dream of a United Europe, and my belief in serving the needs of the world, through service to the best of science.

Those idealistic motivations were crushed by a very different reality, in the brief three months since I took office. Disquieting early warning, signs gave way to the painfully icy, cold recognitions of a world entirely different from what I had envisioned. The Covid-19 pandemic shone a merciless light on how mistaken I had been: In time of emergencies people, and institutions, revert to their deepest nature and reveal their true character.”

He was somewhat relieved when EC President Ursula von der Leyen reached out to him to ask for his personal opinion on how the pandemic could be tackled, but that lead to nothing.

“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 disintegrated upon impact. I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to Covid-19, for what pertains to the complete absence of coordination of health care policies among member states, the recurrent opposition to cohesive financial support initiatives, the pervasive one-sided border closures, and the marginal scale of synergistic scientific initiatives.”

Thus, it should be noted that he didn’t specifically complain about the EU bureaucratic machine, rather by the fact that there is too little standardization between member states, and that even more equalizing bureaucracy needs to be introduced, in one way or another.

In conclusion to his letter, he said that he would continue his work “on the frontlines,” but that he was unaware of the politics of the entire system and was, likely, inadequate for it.

“Now it is time for me to return to the frontier, to the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19, with real resources and responsibilities, away from offices in Brussels, where my political skills are clearly inadequate, and again at the true service of those who need new medical solutions. So far, despite my formal title, my real role has been to serve as an advisor to the European Commission. Following my departure, I will be honored and happy to continue to provide my most conscientious advice, in a public and transparent manner, for free, and without the need for misleading, high-sounding titles, if Europe or anyone else wishes to ask.”

He was essentially disappointed that he didn’t have more executive functions, as a non-elected official, but at the same time complained that the political bodies have impeded him from enforcing decisions that are to be applied on non-uniform systems in all member states of the EU.

In response, the ERC issued its own statement, rather underlying what Ferrari said in his own letter, and about the things he complained about, but provided from a different point of view.

  1. 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. Although voicing his support for this in public pronouncements, the proposals he made to the Scientific Council did not reflect this position. He did not understand the context of the ERC within the EU’s Research and Innovation Programme Horizon 2020.
  2. Since his appointment, Professor Ferrari 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.
  3. In contrast, Professor Ferrari made several personal initiatives within the Commission, without consulting or tapping into the collective knowledge of the Scientific Council, and instead using his position to promote his own ideas.
  4. Lastly, Professor Ferrari was involved in multiple external enterprises, some academic and some commercial, which took a lot of his time and effort and appeared on several occasions to take precedence over his commitment to ERC. The workload associated with these activities proved to be incompatible with the mandate of President of the Scientific Council.

As it starts appearing from his own resignation letter, and from the points that the ERC issued, it would appear that Professor Ferrari was, more or less, attempting to be a sort of “dictator” in the field, while refusing to be any sort of a team player.

His resignation was needless, since his conduct caused a unanimous vote of no confidence.

ERC President by MEP Christian Ehler, rapporteur for Horizon Europe had the following to say:

“The ERC is rewarding excellent scientists from all around the world. Several of these grantees are actually working in fields which can be applied to the current situation and could help to understand and contain the outbreak, such as virology and epidemiology. As announced recently, ERC grantees are also working on AI solutions for disease detection.

Mr Ferrari’s recent proposal to deviate from the ERC’s researcher-driven approach was seen more as a window-dressing public relations stand on the coronavirus crisis and it was a contradiction to the legal basis of the ERC, which can and does in many ways contribute to the fight against COVID 9.

Starting with high expectations but never really acquainting with the independent nature of the ERC, we are sorry that things have turned out this way for a brilliant researcher and entrepreneur like Mr Ferrari. However, this should not serve as argument to accuse the ERC or the EU of not doing enough.’’

And surely, the claims that the EU is “doing enough” are surely overestimated, since much more could be done for its member states. However, entirely one-sided rants, for a lack of a better word are not constructive and the emotional speech of “idealism” in an attempt for good publicity and claims that bureaucracy and politics are stopping real progress, while refusing cooperation and to actually follow the established order of things, and at the same time regretting that there’s not more bureaucracy to allow for more executive powers is a very two-sided and unclear argument.

Since, Mauro Ferrari expressed an opinion that plays towards both sides – more and less bureaucracy, against politics, against cooperation, and towards disregarding cooperative, research work in place for a top-down approach, but not from the European Commission, but from him, which led him to resign, but prior to that lose the complete confidence of those he’s supposed to lead.




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