ERC president ‘optimistic’ UK will stay in ‘irreplaceable’ fund

Despite Brexit, Mauro Ferrari hopes for ‘reasonable construct’ that ‘allows scientists to do their job in the best possible way’

February 20, 2020
Mauro Ferrari
Source: European Commission

The UK gains benefits from the European Research Council that “cannot be replaced”, but there is “good reason to be optimistic” about the nation staying part of the programme despite Brexit, according to the funder’s new president.

The UK has been “the number one [nation] in terms of funding received” since the ERC was established in 2007, Mauro Ferrari told Times Higher Education after taking office last month. “But the real benefit is bigger than that,” he added.

“Perhaps the biggest advantage of them all is that ERC grants strengthen the UK’s position as a top destination for non-UK scientists,” Professor Ferrari said. “Think of all the great people that are in the UK with an ERC grant.

“Science is all about people. You need the best people: you need to recruit them, you need to retain them. And I think the ERC has been a great instrument for the UK to do that.”

Prestigious ERC grants for outstanding researchers, part of the European Union’s wider framework programmes for research, have been described as “mini-Nobel prizes” and as the “Champions League of research”.

There is no certainty over whether the UK will seek to, or be allowed to, join the next framework programme, Horizon Europe, as an associated country when it starts in January 2021.

ERC grants are portable, but holders are expected to spend at least 50 per cent of their working time in an EU member state or associated country – leading some in the UK to fear that the nation will miss out on attracting world-leading researchers if it does not associate to Horizon Europe.

While the UK will “continue to attract and retain” science talent, no matter what, “because of its history and continuous investment”, there is “this bit that comes from the international connotation of the ERC that, I think, cannot be replaced”, Professor Ferrari said.

His comments came as John Womersley, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council between 2011 and 2016, warns that there is “great risk” that the UK may choose not to associate to Horizon Europe.

Writing in THE, Professor Womersley – now director-general of the European Spallation Source – says that while UK-based researchers are keen to retain access to ERC funding, ministers are less likely to be keen on the two other larger “pillars” of Horizon Europe, covering challenge-based funding and the new European Innovation Council.

Professor Womersley warns that the EU is unlikely to allow “cherry-picking” of Horizon Europe, leading him to conclude that the UK was more likely to use the money it would otherwise contribute to the scheme to create a UK-based replacement for the ERC.

Asked by THE whether the UK could associate to the ERC, Professor Ferrari said that he “cannot speculate” on that. “That’s the domain of a political negotiation,” he said.

But given “unanimous sentiment” among UK and continental European scientists he had spoken with, he added: “I would say there is good reason to be optimistic that some sort of reasonable construct will be reached that allows scientists to do their job in the best possible way.”

Professor Ferrari also discussed the ERC’s role in “building bridges” between blue-sky research and innovation – a link where he has personal experience as a pioneer of nanomedicine.

His 40-year academic career in the US began in engineering with a post at the University of California, Berkeley, then changed course following the death of his wife from cancer, after which he entered medical school at the age of 43 to fight the disease.

Professor Ferrari retired as chief commercialisation officer at Houston Methodist Research Institute in 2019, but remains an affiliate professor with a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“I have returned [to Europe] for this job because I thought it was such an extraordinary and unique opportunity,” he said.

The ERC, which evaluates proposals through international panels of leading scientists, is based on the principle that “no individual, no agency, no office can actually envisage the future, what are the necessary…world-changing breakthroughs in all of the fields of science”, Professor Ferrari said. “So we let scientists tell us.”

Although European science is “one of the global front-runners”, he continued, there is “no doubt about the fact that Europe has been lagging behind the United States when it comes to translation of great discoveries into innovation”.

Professor Ferrari added that although the ERC “by mandate is only doing blue-sky research”, it has a role in addressing that by ensuring that research is “best friends” with innovation. “We connect: we make sure our scientists are aware of what’s happening in innovation, and make sure people on the innovation side are aware of what leading scientists are doing,” he said.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ERC president ‘optimistic’ UK will stay in programme

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