Nanomedicine pioneer Mauro Ferrari will be the next president of the European Research Council (ERC), the funding organization announced today. He will come to the job in Brussels with limited European policy experience, after almost 40 years in the United States, where he worked at the University of California, Berkeley; the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland; and the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas.
A dual U.S. and Italian citizen, Ferrari trained in math at the University of Padua in Italy before pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Berkeley. At the age of 43, while leading a department at Ohio State University in Columbus, he also took classes at medical school there. “I never got a medical degree. You can write that the ERC will be led by a med school drop-out,” he jokes.
Now 59, Ferrari will take over from French mathematician Jean-Pierre Bourguignon on 1 January 2020 for a 4-year term at ERC’s helm. Since its inception in 2007, the funding body has awarded about 9000 of its coveted basic research grants, worth €16.9 billion.
ScienceInsider spoke with Ferrari about his passion for interdisciplinary problems and his broad vision for the agency; the conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why did you take this job?
A: I’ve always kept in touch with science in Europe, and I admire how it merges different cultures and perspectives. Science is a worldwide endeavour, and [my taking the job] should not be read as anything negative about the U.S. I had a fantastic time there, and I look forward to continuing to interact with U.S. science.
From 2003 to 2005, I spent 2 years at the U.S. National Cancer Institute as a special advisor to launch the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. The program had a big impact, funding thousands of investigators across the country. This was my first opportunity of enabling and helping research on a broader scale. That’s where I discovered my passion for serving scientists and, through them, the community.
Q: How much do you know about ERC?
A: I’ve never applied for an ERC grant; I have never been involved in an ERC [evaluation] panel. But the ERC enjoys a pretty universal, global respect. Many people refer to it as a model. Of course, it is a lot more famous in Europe than in other places.
I’m very excited about its focus on excellence as the [selection] criterion, and on grants for individual investigators—one lab, one scientist. That’s very powerful.
I also like the notion that the agency has a portfolio with life sciences, engineering, physical sciences, social science, and humanities, all under one roof. That’s very healthy. Boundaries between disciplines are in many ways artificial and counterproductive. [Different fields] have more opportunities for contact here than in other funding agencies.
Q: What did you learn from your own research, applying nanotechnology to cure metastatic cancer, to make interdisciplinary approaches work?
A: Interdisciplinary research is not just someone who knows about A working with someone who knows about B. The very boundaries of science are changing. For example, when we study the nanoscale, is it physics, chemistry, maths, engineering? I don’t really know! The focus should be on solving problems. When you study how you are going to treat cancer that has migrated from its original site to a vital organ, it requires biological knowledge at the cellular and molecular level, but also physics and engineering. That’s what I call “superdisciplinarity,” building on and respecting initial fields.
Q: You will join ERC, possibly after Brexit, and after European elections this month that could see a Euroskeptic surge. Do you feel that ERC has a role to play in uniting Europe?
A: Thanks for asking me an impossible question! Science applies to everybody everywhere in the same way. Cancer hurts people equally regardless of whether they are Democrats or Republicans. The beauty of science is that it brings people together, regardless of everything else. Science should be at the service of the community. It’s too early to say what will happen after Brexit. The U.K. has been a great member of the family here, and I hope there will still be great collaborations with scientists in the U.K. no matter what happens.
Q: Critics say ERC’s focus on excellence excludes some scientists in Eastern and Southern Europe. Does ERC have a role to play in capacity building?
A: Talent is everywhere, but opportunities sometimes are more limited in some places than in others. That’s not an argument against excellence, but we need strategies for talent to flourish and be competitive. Access to infrastructure, equipment, and collaborations is important.
Q: I understand your Christian faith is important to you, and you serve on a bioethics group at the Vatican.
A: I’m currently a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which focuses on biomedical ethics and includes people from different religions, as well as atheists. Religion is important for me in my private life, but I’m not a religious scholar or a moral theologian; I was brought into these groups because I’m conversant with the development of new biomedical science and methods. It’s a lot of fun. Some people ask me how faith interferes with science. I’m not here to answer for anybody, but for me it doesn’t. Beliefs don’t change the methodology or rigor of scientific research.