The president of the European Union’s top scientific body has resigned after just three months in the position saying he has “lost faith in the system” after being told he couldn’t set up a special programme to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Professor Mauro Ferrari, an internationally acclaimed scientist in the field of nano-medicine, had been appointed head of the EU’s European Research Council (ERC) in January.

He now says that his “idealistic dream of a United Europe” has been “crushed by a very different reality”.  Prof Ferrari said his disagreement with the European Commission began when he sought to set up a special ERC programme to combat the coronavirus.

The scientist said he recognised “the pandemic would be a tragedy of possibly unprecedented proportions”.

According to the Financial Times, Ferrari said “I thought that at a time like this, the very best scientists in the world should be provided with resources and opportunities to fight the pandemic, with new drugs, new vaccines, new diagnostic tools, new behavioural dynamic approaches based on science, to replace the oft-improvised intuitions of political leaders.”

But the ERC Scientific Council, its governing body, unanimously rejected the idea, he said, on the grounds that its remit allows it only to fund “bottom-up” research proposed by scientists, rather than larger “top-down” programmes with objectives set by EU leaders, the Financial Times reported.

“I argued that this was not the time for scientific governance to worry excessively about the subtleties of the distinctions between bottom-up versus top-down research,” Prof Ferrari is reported as responding.

He says he then sought to work directly with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to develop a plan, but that “created an internal political thunderstorm” within the all-powerful European Commission which meant it “disintegrated upon impact”.

The European Commission is the EU’s most powerful institution. While none of its members are elected, it is only the Commission, not the elected Parliament, which has the power to initiate legislation. It acts as the EU’s executive body.

“I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to Covid-19… I arrived at the ERC a fervent supporter of the EU [but] the Covid-19 crisis completely changed my views, though the ideals of international collaboration I continue to support with enthusiasm,” Ferrari said.

The EU research council said it regretted Prof Ferrari’s comments, and in a statement said Prof Ferrari failed “to defend the ERC’s programme and mission when representing the ERC”.

The EU has been criticised for its failure to respond to member states such as Italy and Spain who have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. This week, talks after failing to reach agreement on how to help eurozone countries worst hit by the crisis.