EU science agency hits back at departing chief’s corona comments

With the European Union struggling to marshal its response to the coronavirus crisis, it could have done without a very public bust-up at its top science agency.

The EU’s flagship science funder on Wednesday accused former chief Mauro Ferrari of being “economical with the truth” in his account of a breakdown in relations at the agency that led to his resignation.

The Italian-American scientist announced his surprise departure from the European Research Council late Tuesday evening in a statement that blasted the EU’s response to the coronavirus.

But the agency disputed his account and said its leadership council had “unanimously requested” Ferrari resign more than 10 days prior to his announcement, for reasons unrelated to the corona crisis.

Ferrari’s departure after just three months in the job leaves the agency, which is responsible for doling out EU money, with a leadership hole at a time of disruption as the EU institutions try to continue their work remotely because of the coronavirus.

While it’s unlikely to affect the administrative processes of the agency, it is an unwelcome distraction and potentially even an embarrassment for the EU as it scrambles to get on top of the health care pandemic.

“The Commission regrets the resignation of Professor Ferrari at this early stage in his mandate … and at these times of unprecedented crisis in which the role of EU research is key,” spokesman Johannes Bahrke told reporters Wednesday.

Speaking to POLITICO by phone, Ferrari said he felt that the scale of the coronavirus crisis illustrates that “the house is on fire,” but his “great sense of urgency” was not shared by others at the research council.

“It is absolutely crystal clear there is no flexibility for the ERC to respond to the coronavirus crisis,” he said.

Major tensions  

The science agency was set up to fund investigations giving scientists the freedom to research what they see as important. It allocates just over €2 billion a year from the EU budget.

“Many ERC-funded researchers have been active for some time in researching the coronavirus family and many other equally dangerous pathogens,” the agency said.

However, Ferrari “displayed a complete lack of appreciation for the raison-d’être of the ERC to support excellent frontier science” during his time at its helm, according to the body.

It also accused him of a physical absence from the institution, with Ferrari “spending extensive time in the USA” and remaining involved in “multiple external enterprises … which took a lot of his time and effort and appeared on several occasions to take precedence over his commitment to ERC,” the statement said.

In his resignation statement, the departing president said his proposal to set up a special fund for COVID-19 had been rejected, while also slamming a “complete absence of coordination of health care policies among member states,” and “one-sided border closures” among the EU’s failings.

Ferrari told POLITICO he considered the ERC to be headed up by “great people” but said that when it came to the coronavirus crisis, “we have big divergence in values and priorities in this particular context.”

“To me, in a worldwide tragedy such as this … under special circumstances, there had to be ways to flank ‘bottom up’ research with programs that can be helpful in the more immediate timeframe,” he said. 

Ferrari said he was asked to get tested for the coronavirus, which involved a 15-kilometer return trip on a bicycle

He also described any suggestion he had spent excessive time in the United States as “really malicious.”

Ferrari said that during the past month, when he has been in the U.S., he spent eight days quarantined in a hotel room in Denver after becoming ill. After being visited by an ambulance and the police, Ferrari said he was asked to get tested for the coronavirus, which involved a 15-kilometer return trip on a bicycle to reach a drive-through testing facility.

After the test came back negative, he said he was unable to return to Brussels, which is where his wife is, because of the travel ban but moved closer to his daughter in Houston and is now staying in an Airbnb.

He said he has kept European working hours and that his arrangements had been fully documented with the ERC, while observing that the EU institutions were all currently working from home. “How does it matter to anybody if I’m telecommuting from here or there. Do they want me to take unnecessary risks?” he said. 

“Frankly, I would be very happy to see my wife again.”

‘Wrong man’

One of the details of Ferrari’s resignation statement that the EU said is false concerns the involvement of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“Mr. Ferrari said the president of the European Commission reached out to him — no, that is not correct,” said the Commission’s chief spokesperson Eric Mamer. “It’s the other way round … President von der Leyen did not solicit any proposals from Professor Ferrari.”

With the agency’s independence from the Commission a point of concern for scientists, the Commission said Wednesday it “has always respected, and will continue to respect, the scientific autonomy” of the ERC.

The League of European Research Universities, which lobbies on behalf of a small group of top institutions, called the president’s departure “regretful but unavoidable.”

According to Robert-Jan Smits, the president of Eindhoven University of Technology and former director-general of research and innovation at the Commission, “Ferrari was just the wrong man for this job. Being a top scientist is not a guarantee for being a good leader of a scientific organization.”

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