Fostering stronger health research relations between the EU and the Eastern European and Central Asian countries (EECA) is high on the European agenda. Helping drive this effort is the EECALINK ('Promotion and facilitation of international cooperation with EECA') project, which is funded under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) to the tune of EUR 600 000.
EECALINK is targeting three key stakeholders: policymakers, university and academic partners, and the wider research public. Ultimately, six aims and objectives constitute the basis of this project: 1) encouraging and promoting global cooperation in the health sector; 2) stimulating further development of research groups and supporting them in their FP7 project proposals; 3) guaranteeing effective communication of EU-EECA joint research to key policymakers; 4) strengthening and expanding existing research ties with academic partners; 5) building academic and university participation in FP7 projects; and 6) promoting FP7 to industry and academia.
The EECALINK consortium consists of 17 partners from 12 countries. All eyes are on boosting and facilitating collaboration between EU Member States and the EECA countries.
The project's main findings were presented at a conference in Brussels, Belgium on 7 June 2011. Ambassador Milena Vicenova, Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the EU said in a welcome address: 'The cooperation with the East European and Central Asian countries is among the EU priorities and was also one of the political priorities of the Presidency of the Czech Republic in the Council of the EU in the first half of the year 2009. She mentioned the launching of a high-level event of the Eastern Partnership, where EU Member States and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus (EU-5+1) were represented. The event took place in Prague on 7 May 2009. The countries started to cooperate more closely in the framework of four multilateral thematic platforms: democracy, good governance and stability; economic integration and convergence with EU policies; energy security; and contacts between people.'
The EECALINK project partners identified health priorities and the most burning issues in their respective countries. Some factors that hinder the EU-EECA cooperation include the diverse management system in EECA countries compared to the one found in the EU, the fragmented national contact point (NCP) system, low motivation level, foreign language barriers, and difficulties in finding coordinators. Gaps identified by the project in the national health systems include maternal and child healthcare, development of drugs from local plants/raw materials, and healthcare in stressful environments.
Conference moderator Aleksi Sedo, head of the Institute of Biochemistry and Experimental Oncology at Charles University Prague in the Czech Republic, praised EECALINK not only for raising awareness but also for delivering on its objectives. However, he pointed out that the EECA cannot identify the unique and high-quality research that is integral for its members. 'Maybe some marketing in order to make those who are excellent visible would be appropriate, in other words "support the quality",' Mr Sedo said.
Commenting on the project's findings, EECALINK coordinator Stanislav Stipek, also from Charles University Prague, said: 'It is a good idea is to bring EU experts in EECA countries, but it is a difficult task.' He went on to say that the project made improvements in cooperation and provided new opportunities.
Some of the main barriers that keep EECA countries from participating in FP7 include lack of advertising of EECA organisations, lack of information about calls, lack of FP7 promotion, and differences in standards of law, administrative rules and financial regulations.
Developing and launching more information days and workshops in the EECA, creating a health organisation network, and changing how scientists and policymakers think about funding opportunities are some examples of what is needed to boost cooperation between the EU and EECA.
Ultimately, what is clear is that FP7 is a significant source of health research funding and EECA countries could benefit immensely from participating in FP7 projects, particularly in those targeting cancer diseases, cardiovascular diseases, ageing-related diseases, and rare diseases such as Familial Mediterranean Fever. The main benefits for the EECA project partners include a deeper understanding of the EU health policy, enhanced international cooperation in and beyond the health area or identification of the most important priorities for the cooperation.