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5th Jun 2020

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EU science chief who 'quit' had been told to resign

  • Mauro Ferrari (l) dramatically resigned on Tuesday as president of the EU's top science funding agency, amid the global coronavirus pandemic (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

The shock resignation of Mauro Ferrari as president of EU's top science-funding agency in fact followed a vote of no confidence by his peers, it emerged on Wednesday (8 April).

After only three months on the job, Ferrari dramatically quit as head of the European Research Council (ERC) on Tuesday (7 April), complaining of internal disputes on how to best tackle the pandemic.

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But on Wednesday, 24 hours later, the scientific council overseeing the ERC said they in fact had all wanted him gone already at the end of March.

The resignation made immediate headlines globally, after Ferrari published a long statement in the Financial Times, outlining his disillusionment with the European Union.

Ferrari had sought to establish a special programme within the ERC to combat the virus. The proposal was rejected by the ERC's scientific council.

"The rejection of my motion was based on the notion that the ERC funds 'bottom-up' research," said Ferrari, noting that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had also personally reached out to him.

Ferrari said he then put together a plan, with von der Leyen's input, but it quickly dissolved within the administrative machinery of the European Commission.

"I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to Covid-19," he said, adding that his work with von der Leyen had created an internal political firestorm.

But this version of events leading to his resignation and von der Leyen's personal appeals to him have since been contested.

The European Commission's chief spokesperson, Eric Mamer, stepped into the fray on Wednesday, after telling reporters that Ferrari was wrong.

"It is professor Ferrari who reached out to the president. President von der Leyen did not solicit any proposals from professor Ferrari," Mamer told reporters in Brussels at the daily midday briefing.

The ERC's scientific council also hit back only moments later, bullet-pointing all their complaints against Ferrari, while insinuating he had been lying.

"We regret professor Ferrari's statement, which at best is economical with the truth," they said.

They further claim Ferrari had, during his three-month tenure, "displayed a complete lack of appreciation" for the ERC's role, that he spent way too much time in the United States, bypassed the ERC by going straight to the commission, and had too many other academic and commercial interests.

He is, for instance, listed on the board of directors at US biotech company Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals.

The European Research Council itself is appointed by the European Commission. One of ERC's vice-presidents has since taken over Ferrari's leadership role until a new president is found.

The ERC was founded in 2007 and has a €13bn budget spanning seven years.

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