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Funding basic research in the life sciences: exploring opportunities for European synergies
13 December 2004, Brussels

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REPORT of the conference

Funding Basic Research in the life sciences: exploring opportunities for European synergies

On 13th December 2004, the Directorate-General for Research of the European Commission hosted a high-level conference to explore opportunities for European synergies in funding basic research in the life sciences. The event attracted over 300 participants, including policy makers, directors of national and international research councils, scientists of leading European academic institutes, representatives of the European Parliament and the European Commission, industry, and patient organisations.

The conference programme and presentations are available on:
http://ec.europa.eu/research/health/genomics/index_en.htm

This document summarises the discussion and proposed follow-up actions of this conference.

Download a pdf version of the report.

The speakers and participants were unanimous in their opinion that funding for basic research in the life sciences needs to be strengthened. They concluded that:

1. The character and needs of basic research in the life sciences are changing dramatically. The availability of the sequence of the human and other genomes has revolutionized biology. The genomics-based tools drive new scientific discoveries, enabling researchers to explore complex biological processes and diseases in an integrative and quantitative manner via “systems biology” approaches.

To reflect this new situation, Europe as a whole must significantly increase its investment into basic research in the life sciences. This funding should focus on investigator-driven research, collaborative research and life sciences infrastructures, and will need to take account of the large scale nature of modern genome-related research. Without such a budgetary increase, Europe’s competitive position in the life sciences research will suffer. Europe’s life sciences research needs strong and courageous research policies on a European-level to meet the Lisbon objective of being the most competitive economy in the world.

2. Increased European funding for basic research is essential, but in itself not sufficient to stimulate a knowledge based economy. Europe’s life science research also depends on better cooperation between national and regional funding organisations: this is essential for Europe to meet the ambitious challenges of life sciences research.

3. The European Commission, in partnership with other European organisations, should establish an annual funders’ forum. This should bring together, on a regular basis, national and European high level policy-makers: firstly, to develop synergies at the European level, secondly, to maximise the resources available through better cooperation and collaboration between all funding agencies and thirdly to discuss the new challenges in the life sciences with the scientific community in order to agree on the best funding strategies to address them.

To ensure momentum is maintained, the first forum meeting should take place in towards the end of 2005 (information will be made available on the web).

 

Highlights of the conference presentations:

The changing landscape of life sciences research and importance of increasing investment in basic research in the life sciences in Europe

Scientific and technological progress in the life sciences will have considerable impact on our daily life, in particular on our health, our food and our environment. The life sciences will dominate scientific discoveries of the 21st century. As Charles Buys (EURAB) said in his opening address: “We are now entering the Era of life sciences.”

The last two decades have witnessed unprecedented advances in the life sciences. Mike Bevan (John Innes Institute, UK) argued that the sequencing of human and other genomes has revolutionized biology, with genome sequences becoming the “periodic table” of biology. The spectacular development of the “omics-research” has dramatically changed the research landscape in the life sciences. Such approaches pave the way to understanding biology in an integrative manner, e.g. from atoms to organisms. Life sciences research is moving away from a reductionist approach (looking at one gene at a time) to a systems biology view that attempts to integrate all the molecular networks in a cell. Fotis Kafatos (EMBL) described this as a shift from descriptive to quantitative biology, from analysis to modelling complex cellular processes in organisms.

The importance of basic research was repeatedly highlighted during the conference. Basic research represents the genuine curiosity principle which underpins the creation of new knowledge. By creating new knowledge, basic research provides the foundation for applied research, breeds innovation and therefore reinforces economical growth. Indeed, several medical treatments or tools that are commonly used to improve our health, such as vaccines, antibiotics, medical imaging, were based on major progress in basic research.

Now, with these new tools and knowledge, the time has come to set ambitious and “braver” challenges in the life sciences for the years to come. Jonathan Knowles (Roche) pointed out this will be the only way to find novel and effective treatments for disease, thereby to improve the quality of life of Europe’s citizens.

The new challenges in basic life sciences research require a significant increase in public investment. In order to achieve this goal, it is essential to establish a constructive dialogue at the political and societal levels.

Describing the American experience, Mary Woolley of Research!America, reminded the conference how to make medical and health research a higher political priority. She cited Mary Lasker (‘Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation): “if you think research is expensive, try disease”. Through an intensive lobbying campaign and the support of 40 million Americans, Research!America helped to achieve a doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the main public funding agency for basic research in the life sciences in the USA.

A recent poll (Eurobarometer) revealed that 75% of European citizens support scientific research and 66% see science and technology as a high European priority. Christian Patermann (European Commission, DG Research, Directorate E, Food, Agriculture and Biotechnology) recalled that European Heads of States, in the Barcelona European summit in 2003, acknowledged the crucial role that life sciences will play in a competitive knowledge-based economy. Politicians, policy makers and other stakeholders, such as patient organisations and charities, should be involved from the start to make sure that public investment in life sciences research is seen as a high-level priority in Europe.

How can Europe fund basic research in the life sciences in the future?

The changing nature of life sciences research will compel Europe’s funding community to adapt. Research funding for basic research in the life sciences in Europe should focus on four key elements:

(1) collaborative research,
(2) single-laboratory research,
(3) infrastructures and
(4) cooperation between funding programmes.

A combination of these elements will provide a funding landscape able to embrace the big challenges in the life sciences in Europe!

(1) Collaborative research in the life sciences
Octavi Quintana Trias (European Commission, DG Research, Directorate F - Health) emphasized the importance of funding collaborative research, involving multidisciplinary and multinational teams. Integration of resources and expertise on a European level is crucial for meeting those ambitious research challenges that are out of reach of individual teams, institutes and even countries.

With a budget of about 3 billion EUR for life sciences research in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), the European Commission plays a critical role in initiating and financially supporting vital multidisciplinary collaborative research projects that forge collaborations between researches in different countries and between different scientific disciplines.

The FP6 Integrated Projects and Networks of Excellence create the necessary critical mass of resource and expertise to address the large scale challenges in life sciences research. In their presentations, Steve Brown (MRC, UK), coordinator of the EUMORPHIA Integrated Project and Marie-Helene Pinard (INRA, France), coordinator of the EADGENE Network of Excellence clearly demonstrated the importance of these ambitious European initiatives in their respective fields of research.

Alternative methods should be developed to recognize the contributions of scientists in the public sector that work for the increasing number of ‘industrial-scale’ basic research projects: it is currently not easy to measure the contribution of individuals using existing methods of appraisal (based on number of peer-reviewed publications and/or citation indices).

(2) Single laboratory research in the life sciences
In parallel, it is important to promote the excellence of basic research in the life sciences through support to individual talented investigators both at the national and at the European level (through the European Research Council: ERC). Individually driven research projects should be selected on the basis of their scientific excellence. Their research agenda would be defined by the researchers in a bottom-up fashion. Frank Gannon (EMBO) argued that these projects will also contribute to addressing the ambitious challenges, very much like pixels form a picture.

(3) Infrastructures in the life sciences
A crucial element for the delivery of high quality basic life sciences research is the availability of suitable infrastructures (e.g. bioinformatics data resources, microbial archives, genome reagents (antibodies), tissue collections). According to Fotis Kafatos (EMBL), in contrast to physics, life sciences do not require very large-scale infrastructures (“one size does not fit all”), but rather ‘living’ instruments that can be rapidly expanded, diversified and maintained in a sustainable way. Their investments should be of the same order of magnitude as for the physical sciences. Instead of being all upfront, they require ongoing sustainable expenditure. These infrastructures would need to be coordinated at EU level and embedded in European centres of excellence in order to make them responsive to the needs of scientists.

(4) Cooperation between funding programmes in the life sciences
The conference participants unanimously recognized the value and the importance of EU collaborative research programmes in tackling the future challenges of life sciences research, and gave wholehearted support to the proposed doubling of the budget for the next EC Framework Programme.

Although this would represent a considerable lump sum, this by itself would be insufficient to meet the “braver” challenges that life sciences research faces, in the absence of a multiplicative effect operated by national or regional funding agencies.

Tivadar Tulassay (Semmelweis University, Hungary), set out clearly the weaknesses of the current science funding systems in Europe. Funding for basic research in the life sciences is fragmented among different categories of funding bodies, e.g. all the national public funding agencies, inter-governmental agencies (EMBO, ESF, EUROHORCS, HFSP), charities, private non-profit foundations, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and the European Commission. All these funding bodies have their own agenda and priorities that are set independently of each other resulting often in duplication of effort.

Bertil Andersson (ESF) pointed out that many initiatives already exist for coordination of national programmes (ERA-NET, as presented by Peter Folstar of the Netherlands Genomics Initiative, Johs Kjosbakken of the Research Council of Norway and Josef Syka of the Czech Academy of Sciences), and trans-national cooperation (EMBO, EUROCORES, EURYI), but that there is a need to go beyond these small initiatives and to lift barriers that impede the necessary revolution in the European funding systems, including a strategy for funding European infrastructures.

The European Commission intends to create an annual “funders’ forum” where Europe's main sponsors of life sciences research will meet to discuss synergies and seek to address challenges in a coordinated fashion. Eero Vuorio (University of Turku, Finland) emphasized the need for participation of high-level representatives of funding organisations in this forum to maximise its effectiveness. The idea of a forum was received very favourably by the participants of the conference. Many of them also expressed their wholehearted support for follow-up actions in 2005 and beyond.


Download a pdf version of the report.

 

 
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