At the age of 43, Mauro Ferrari astonished his peers by giving up his career as a highly regarded professor of engineering at the University of California in Berkeley to enrol at medical school.
He had been driven to find a cure for the cancer that had killed his wife at the age of 32, leaving him alone with three traumatised children. “I feel comfortable talking about this now – I didn’t for years,” he says. “Everyone has got a wound that pushes them to do better.”
It is in that spirit that Ferrari, who would go on to pioneer the application in medicine of nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter the size of atoms and molecules – decided to put to one side his intention to retire this year to take one last job: president of the European Research Council (ERC).
The council is the EU’s chief funder of scientists seeking breakthroughs at the very frontiers of our knowledge. Since its establishment in 2007, it has helped seven researchers win Nobel prizes. Three of its grant recipients were responsible for the first image of a black hole, which made headlines around the world last year.
Ferrari joins this month at a delicate moment. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU could leave a huge hole in its research budget. He believes Europe is overachieving in science given its geographical size but has been “good not great” when compared with the US and China at turning cutting-edge research into innovative products. And there is pressure from central and eastern European states for equity in funding at a time when a brain drain across the bloc is becoming the locus of angry political debate.
Of the EU’s total research programme Horizon 2020, the vast majority goes to projects in the richer member states, while the 13 countries that have joined the EU since 2004 receive just 4.8%. The UK, Italy, Germany, France and the Netherlands have tended to be the leading beneficiaries of ERC money.
Ferrari, 60, whose hinterland includes a talent for the saxophone and a stint playing professional basketball to pay his way through college, says he has an unwavering philosophy: “Give room to the runners.”
“Our sole focus is to identify the great breakthrough people and opportunities, people who can see round corners, see through walls,” he says in his first interview in his new post. “If you look at the reason why some people have less of a chance to make it when they come up in European competitions, especially with ERC, then the reasons are very simple. You do multi-variant analysis: the most important factor is how much the individual countries invest in their own academic programmes.”
Ferrari says he intends to speak to prime ministers and ministers, and push the case for the long-term benefits that the poorer member states could reap given the talent he can see there. “[But] we are not going to change the criteria. That is an institutional decision that I don’t think will be considered and I am OK with that. If you start making special allocation for this that and the other, even if individually they are all worthy causes, I think they have some experience in the United States where really the notion of excellence paid the price.”
There is talk of the ERC budget’s for the next seven years being cut by €3bn in the ongoing negotiations between member states, the European commission and parliament. “My prediction is that our budget is going to stay the same or go up,” Ferrari says.
But for all that he hopes nothing will change, the UK’s departure does create doubt. The relationship with the ERC will be part of a complex and tough negotiation over the next 11 months.
He notes that the UK is currently his “largest client”. The country’s researchers have received 1,998 grants worth around €3.6bn since 2007, making it the biggest recipient of ERC cash.
He hopes it can continue, but there are signs of caution among UK-based researchers in applying for funds as the Brexit negotiations have raged. According to the ERC, 544 researchers in the early stages of their careers in the UK applied in 2017 for a starting grant, compared with 372 for work in 2020. Applications for the consolidator grant – for scientists to build on their experience and research – declined from 428 for 2017 to 387 in the latest round, and applications for the advanced grant fell from 433 in 2017 to 326 last year.
“There was a sizeable drop-off,” Ferrari says. “But certainly not from anything we did from the ERC side but because of concern from British scientists who were thinking: ‘Should I do all this work pulling this together and send it out when perhaps it will be terminated? Maybe I should put my work in something else …’ But we love them.”
As with other presidents of the ERC, he has been given permission to continue his own research programme back in the US, and his drive to beat cancer remains. “I am hopeful that we are closing in on very major breakthroughs,” he says.
Around 70-80% of cancer deaths are due to metastatic disease – when cancer has spread from where it started to another part of the body, in particular the lung and liver. “But if cancer starts on the skin, breast or muscles or bone, as long as it stays local the chances are we can take it out with the knife or radiation or some sort of ablation strategy,” he says.
“If you can take on the metastatic deposits in [the lung and liver] in a way that can eliminate them – not so they can come back with a vengeance, but eliminate them completely – then you are a heck of a lot closer. Not to ending cancer – cancer is part of life – but ending death and suffering due to cancer, the major causes.
“I think a new era is coming,” Ferrari adds. “I promised to my kids they would see a world where the word cancer is not a death sentence for them.”