NEST — what's next?
The NEST (New and Emerging Science and Technology) initiative was a pilot activity in the Sixth Framework Programme FP6. It was specifically designed to support unconventional and visionary research with the potential to open new fields for European science and technology, as well as research on potential problems uncovered by science. NEST was designed to be flexible and interdisciplinary research was encouraged. There were no restrictions on the scientific fields to be addressed except that the research carried out under NEST should cut across or lie outside the thematic priority areas.
It gives me great pleasure to present this overview of one the most forward-looking and successful initiatives of the 6th Framework Programme. Between 2000 and 2006 a total of 164 projects were funded under the New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) initiative. We can now take stock of their achievements and assess the relevance of the NEST approach for the future.
In many ways NEST was an initiative ahead of its time, focussed on developing the radically new ideas which will feed economic and sustainable growth, jobs and social progress in the long term – the very same issues that are now at the heart of the Innovation Union Initiative! The excellence of the work supported is beyond doubt. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics can be directly linked to the frontier research carried out under the SIBMAR NEST project. And 28 patents have arisen so far from NEST projects, demonstrating that much of the excellent research is also leading to innovative commercial applications.
A key feature of NEST was the non-prescriptive bottom-up approach, designed to unleash the creativity of researchers. The recent interim evaluation of the 7th Framework programme reaffirms the importance of this way of funding research. A recent stakeholder consultation shows that researchers would like to see this and many of the features of NEST adopted in the next phase of support for research, under the recently announced Horizon 2020 programme.
Horizon 2020 will bring all existing programmes for research and innovation together within a single framework. This new programme, which will come online in 2014, will support the whole chain from basic research through to innovative products and services that will stimulate growth and job creation in Europe. And, last but not least, single set of rules will make it far easier for those making groundbreaking research discoveries to take them forward to the market place.
Horizon 2020 includes a coherent set of actions dedicated to supporting the EU's science base, including European Research Council, with a reinforced budget, and a newlydesigned Future and Emerging Technologies activity that covers the entire spectrum of research in a manner very much like NEST.
NEST might have finished but its spirit lives on!
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Experiences of 27 projects, which participated in a survey
The New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) initiative, an activity launched under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) represents a success story for funding excellence and boosting co-operation. It bears the fruit of an exciting experience that involved almost 1000 research organisations in Europe and elsewhere. Its results are now available, the 7th Framework programme (FP7) is in full swing and a successor programme is under preparation.
The NEST initiative was an innovative activity in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) specifically designed to support unconventional and visionary research with the potential to open up new fields in European science and technology, as well as research on problems uncovered by science. NEST was designed to be flexible and to encourage interdisciplinary research. There were no restrictions on scientific fields to be addressed except that research carried out under NEST should cut across or lie outside the thematic priority areas.
NEST in numbers
A survey2 among beneficiaries was launched in June 2010 to collect their feedback, with the aim of providing a broader picture of coordinators' experience with NEST. The survey has produced three main results: an overview of the answers of project coordinators (section 3), a descriptive summary based on qualitative information received (section 4) and the Project Fact Sheets (annexed).
The second set of questions collected the feedback of project coordinators:
The survey covered the top tiers of projects that closed in the period 2009 through to the middle of 2010. It represents 31% of the total NEST population involving 173 organizations located in 21 Countries, Member States and Associated Countries. Fifty three percent of the project coordinators replied. The coordinators were located in 11 different countries: 5 leading organizations from the UK, 5 from Italy, 3 from Germany, 2 each from Austria, Finland, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and 1 each from Belgium and Spain. The 27 projects cover the different original calls from 2003 - 2005
Eighty five percent of coordinators considered the scientific freedom given to researchers under NEST as an important asset, especially in fundamental research. They declared that the initiative helped to generate and keep alive many scientific communities across Europe, simultaneously fostering frontier research activities. Eighty nine percent of the coordinators agreed that the NEST funding mechanism was well designed to support frontier research especially when compared with national funding mechanisms.
Where the future of research and innovation was mentioned in the survey, 89% of the coordinators responded that frontier research should be supported at the EU level by similar initiatives to NEST. The coordinators recommended multi-partner solutions, making use of the positive experiences gained with NEST.
NEST values and advantages compared to other research programmes
NEST was particularly valued because of:
Furthermore, as NEST was targeting new science rather than demonstration it allowed the possibility to move within a domain without the obligation of producing immediately applicable results, but fostering genuine cooperation and competition among research teams. The specific interdisciplinary approach was seen as generating interconnections between partners. It maintained NEST disciplinary specialisation while setting up the links needed for the subject area to evolve.
NEST beneficiaries expressed the opinion that predominantly multi-partner research experiences, driven by a bottom-up approach and by the scientific excellence of single partners, can bring valuable outcomes and improve Europe's attractiveness. Multi-partner programmes were perceived as being equipped to facilitate the resolution of complex problems by pushing research communities to overcome the boundaries of single disciplines or research areas. The opinion that multi-partner programmes favour cross-fertilisation and encourage more open-minded sharing of ideas and experiences was largely shared; both by scientific communities which already experimented "peer in excellence interaction" and by communities which interacted with emerging teams, based in countries with lesser traditions in frontier research or with less developed infrastructures.
Multi-partner programmes were also valued as offering academics and scientists the ideal ground to develop joint research publications, which consolidate their professional career, especially at international level, and to reinforce personal prestige. The possibility to be involved in excellence-driven research groups and to put forward joint papers, articles and publications was also considered a factor for attracting excellence from outside Europe.
In this context, what participants appreciated most were partnerships of relatively small size, agile and able to operate as "single integrated research team", even when maintaining specialisations and segregated expertise. However, they agreed that excellence should remain the unique criterion for the setting-up of a consortium and the number of partners should not negatively impact on the management capabilities or on the decision-making process.
NEST supported a network in frontier research
NEST enabled researchers to get together and share knowledge, methodologies, language and equipment. Encounters of well-diversified communities were animated by genuine enthusiasm and a certain consciousness of representing top level research organisations in extremely advanced sectors of scientific inquiry.
Balancing the support of cooperation and competition, NEST stimulated the development and consolidation of new promising fields of investigation. Given a broader horizon and well conceived European policies for research and innovation, these fields could also positively impact on industrial growth.
NEST increased the chances of research teams or individuals to obtain additional funds from national and international funding agencies as well as to liaise strategically with industries in order to develop market-driven collaborations. It also contributed towards boosting synergies among funds and programmes at international, European and national levels by interlocking different resources.
Some questions however were posed regarding the persistence of the new scientific communities set up via NEST collaborations. As highlighted by several project coordinators in the survey, the principal concerns are:
NEST rely on scientific community's freedom to explore futuristic options
For researchers and scientists it is essential to adapt the work programme of a research project to its findings during its duration. In frontier research the work may yield unexpected results and it is crucial to have the possibility to modify plans, methodologies, objectives and even already established outputs. NEST demonstrated, in this respect, a high degree of adaptability and responded to the expectations.
The survey also highlighted how this scientific autonomy had an impact on the social dynamics among research teams; it sustained a positive and enthusiastic working environment and a spirit of adventure. Being a "NEST community" was felt to be a distinctive element and consortia were generally proud to benefit from a different regime, based on trust and recognising their status as excellent scientists.
However, participants also pointed out that the self-determination introduced with NEST did not necessarily counterbalance the administrative burdens, often described as "unnecessary", "time consuming" or “inflexible". Participants felt under pressure to deliver according to the established timetable, diverting effort to administrative tasks rather than to research activities. In parallel they recognised the necessity for the Commission to monitor spending, thus imposing common administrative rules.
According to their experiences, the role of the coordinator is seen as crucial to keep the balance between self-determination and performance, because they have to channel the efforts put in by the consortium into administrative obligations and the drive for discovery. This experience is supported by the outcomes of a NEST Specific Support Action, which identifies the role of the coordinator as a key success factor, thus providing evidence of the relevance of the "human factor" for a successfully executed project.
Future multidisciplinary frontier research - messages to the Commission
1 The Interim Evaluation of the Seventh Framework Programme Report of the Expert Group. The following response of the Commission to the Report of the Expert Group and Interim Evaluation Report of the European Parliament.
2 Methodology of the survey
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