The European Union has confirmed that the head of its top science organisation has resigned in frustration at the height of the coronavirus crisis.
Mauro Ferrari had only become president of the European Research Council (ERC) on January 1, but EU Commission spokesman Johannes Bahrke said that “Professor Ferrari resigned," effective immediately.
In a statement given to the Financial Times, Professor Ferrari -- described as a pioneer in nanomedicine -- said he had “been extremely disappointed by the European response” to the pandemic. He complained about running into institutional and political obstacles as he sought to swiftly set up a scientific programme to combat the virus.
“I have seen enough of both the governance of science, and the political operations at the European Union,” he wrote. “I have lost faith in the system itself.”
Ferrari's sudden resignation and his stinging criticism is bound to add pressure on EU institutions, which have been accused of not working together to battle the global pandemic.
Call for special EU programme rejected
Professor Ferrari said he had called for a special ERC programme to combat the coronavirus, but that this had been unanimously rejected by its governing body. The research council was only allowed to fund "bottom-up" research rather than "top-down" EU programmes, he was made to understand.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen asked for his advice and contributed "substantial directives" to a plan he developed, Ferrari said -- but this then hit an "internal political thunderstorm" and "disintegrated upon impact" when it ran into EU bureaucracy.
As the coronavirus spread from China to Europe, the bloc was criticised for not acting forcefully enough to set up a coordinated response even though health issues are still primarily the responsibility of the bloc's 27 individual nations.
The European Commission on Wednesday defended its record in combating the crisis and said 18 research and development projects had already been picked at short notice to fight the coronavirus crisis. It said another 50 European Research Council projects were contributing in the EU-wide effort.
“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 EU's executive Commission said.
Ferrari's resignation 'epic-scale flouncing'
Professor Ferrari's version of events has been disputed in Brussels.
The ERC responded saying that on Friday 27 March, "all 19 active members of the ERC’s Scientific Council individually and unanimously requested that Mauro Ferrari resign from his position as ERC’s President."
Among the reasons for the call for his resignation:
"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."
They also added that extra curricular activities were impeding his work, claiming he 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."
German MEP Christian Ehler, of the European Parliament's largest group the European People's Party (EPP) was quoted calling his stance "a window-dressing public relations stand" that contradicted the European Research Council's legal basis.
"Effectively he (Ferrari) wanted to completely alter the ERC -- it was never designed for programmatic research," Brigid Laffan, Director of the think-tank the Robert Schuman Centre, said on Twitter.
"Reading between the lines, Mauro Ferrari’s resignation as president of ERC research comes across as epic-scale flouncing. He seems to misunderstand the structures of EU research funding, and (the) ERC’s role," tweeted James Wilsdon, Digital Science Professor at Sheffield University and a leading member of other research bodies.
The ERC's mission statement specifically says its approach is "bottom-up" in nature, to allow research to be driven by scientists rather than "led by priorities set by politicians". Its role is to encourage research in Europe through competitive funding, complementing national initiatives, it explains.
EU efforts to tackle pandemic
On Tuesday von der Leyen said the EU pledged to raise more than €15 billion to help fight the coronavirus worldwide.
Last week she unveiled an €100 billion plan to prevent companies laying off employees across the European bloc and try to stave off recession.
Over the past month, EU nations have been trying to work closer together and EU leaders have committed to better coordination to try to alleviate the human and economic suffering from the global pandemic that has upended the daily lives of billions and dealt a huge blow to the economies around the world.
But it remains an uphill struggle. On the economic and financial front, ministers from the 19 Eurogroup nations failed on Wednesday to get a breakthrough on using its financial clout to improve solidarity between the richer and poorer member states.