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Europe’s premier research funder appoints new president

ERC President Mauro Ferrari.

Mauro Ferrari will begin his term as ERC president in January 2020.Credit: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty

Nanobiologist Mauro Ferrari will become president of the European Research Council (ERC), the European Union’s premier funder of basic research. Ferrari’s appointment comes as the agency faces challenges to its budget, which cannot currently cover all of the grants that evaluators deem fundable.

The European Commission selected Ferrari from a shortlist drawn up by a search committee, which research commissioner Carlos Moedas had put together. The commission announced the appointment on 14 May, and Ferrari will begin the role in January.

Ferrari, who is 59, is an Italian citizen who has spent his working life in the United States. He will take over from mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, who was previously director of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies (IHES) near Paris and has been ERC president since 2014.

Grant challenge

The prestigious ERC — which has an average annual budget of €1.8 billion — was created in 2007 to fund investigator-driven, frontier research done by scientists at different stages of their careers. Anyone at an institute in an EU member state can apply for an ERC grant, of up to €2.5 million (US$2.8 million). But the agency rapidly became oversubscribed. Since its foundation, an average of just 11% of applications have been funded in its main categories, which award 5-year grants to researchers in early, middle or advanced career stages.

In 2011, the ERC introduced short extensions for individual ERC grants to support efforts to bring research ideas closer to market, known as proof-of-concept grants. In 2012, it began to offer ‘synergy grants’ of up to €10 million over 6 years, for groups of 2–4 principal investigators collaborating on particularly complex research questions. These grants are even more heavily subscribed: last year, just 9% of eligible applications were successful.

Ferrari studied mathematics at the University of Padua in Italy and moved to the University of California, Berkeley, to complete a master’s degree and PhD in mechanical engineering. He studied medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he was also part of the faculty, then moved to the MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, where he chaired the department of nanomedicine and biomedical engineering.

In 2010, he became president and chief executive of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, from which he retired in February.

“I may look like I have been working in many fields,” he says. “But in fact, for the last 20 years, I have been studying the same problem — how do you treat cancer metastases to the lungs and liver?”

He says that his multidisciplinary background will help him to build relationships with scientists from all the different disciplines that the ERC covers. “But the focus of the ERC is basic science, and that is what I will be dedicated to as president.”

Ferrari says he hopes to start a new lab in the United States during his ERC presidency to continue his basic research into the physics of how cancer cells are transported in the body. He is on the board of drug-development company Arrowhead Pharmaceuticals in Pasadena, California.

Last year, Pope Francis appointed Ferrari as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which helps to develop Catholic teachings on medical ethics, including those relating to procreation, euthanasia and abortion.

As an EU outsider, he says, he is on a learning curve, but he thinks that his experience creating a major national programme for nanotechnology in cancer for the US National Cancer Institute in the early 2000s will be relevant to some of the challenges ahead of him.

“Coming from the outside, Mauro will bring fresh perspectives to the ERC,” says Helga Nowotny, a former ERC president who was on the presidential search committee. This will be valuable in responding to new questions the ERC is likely to face in its next funding phase, such as how to strengthen its links with other parts of the commission’s research programmes, she adds.


Updates & Corrections

  • Update 14 May 2019: This story has been updated with additional quotes.


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