More effective together

Being at the forefront of innovation and competitiveness: a goal Europe can achieve only through effective collaboration.

If there is one area where it is important – and fortunately possible – to move forward together, it is that of scientific research: to confront competition, but also to avoid wasting energy and research funding. By competition, we are referring in particular to the US and China. “Currently, only 10-15 % of European programmes allow researchers from other countries to participate, while most American programmes are open to the world. If Europe were to draw inspiration from how the latter country operates, it could become the number two in global research,” was how an enthusiastic DG Research official recently described the situation. The idea is to coordinate projects where working in harness would make Europe more efficient. The task is far from easy, but the number of initiatives is rapidly growing. The framework programmes, the ERA-NET activities and initiatives under Article 169 of the Treaty establishing the European Union are examples that clearly reflect this commitment to European unity.

The Framework Programmes

The Framework Programmes (FPs) for research and development are financial instruments that serve to implement EU policy in science and technology. Research topics for funding are selected by a management committee composed of representatives of Member States and Associated Countries, based on proposals from researchers in the sector, consulted by the Commission. The Cooperation part of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is divided into 10 thematic areas, including health, nanoscience and biotechno logy, to name but a few. The key conditions for a project to be chosen by the committee of independent experts responsible for the selection is that it must involve researchers from at least three Member States or Associated Countries.

ERA-NET initiatives

Each Member State has its own system of research funding. The idea of the ERA-NETs is to encourage collaboration between regional and national research programmes in order to pursue common objectives. This time it is the national programme managers in each country, that is to say mainly funding bodies, who decide the themes and tasks to be undertaken jointly. On the ground, this involves exchanging information on each country’s areas of activity and sharing databases, leading eventually to joint calls. The national programme managers have enough cards in their hands to decide to launch a collaboration once they have reached agreement, without necessarily waiting for external funding. Where countries fund their projects themselves, the EU picks up the tab for coordination, training and the management activities of the consortium.

Article 169 initiatives

Every activity the EU undertakes needs to have a legal basis. The Framework Programme, for example, is covered by Articles 166 and 167 of the EU Treaty. Article 169, in turn, allows Member States and the Commission to cofinance major initiatives of scientific interest. This involves integrating entire national research programmes in terms of management, finance and calls. The research areas are determined by the Council and the European Parliament, based on proposals from the Commission. An initial Article 169 initiative was launched under FP6 in the field of poverty rela ted diseases in developing countries. Four new initiatives are already planned for FP7, among them the AAL (Ambient Assisted Living) project, which seeks to use information technology and communication to improve seniors’ quality of life.

The benefits of such cooperation…

One of the major findings is that it works: collaboration between researchers from various European countries has actually increased. This is being felt by researchers themselves who, thanks to European projects, have access to more funding sources than before. In addition, national programme managers have emphasised in a recent report that ERA-NETs had proven very interesting for small countries that tend to specialise strongly in certain areas. “ERA-NETs are also relevant for highly specific subjects – like rare diseases – that are too broad to be addressed at national level, but remain too small to interest the research community”, adds Véronique Halloin, a chemist and Secretary- General of the Belgian Fonds National pour la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS).

For Véronique de Halleux, a researcher at the polymers laboratory of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) involved in the One- P (Organic Nanomaterials for Electronics and Photonics) project, which brings together 200 researchers from 10 countries, the initiative is an undoubted success. “Being able to work with researchers from several European countries is a significant asset, allowing us to work with the best specialists. We could never have got this project up and running without it.”

Her statement is echoed by colleague Jean-Louis Deneubourg, researcher and head of the Social Ecology Unit, which is taking part in the MADE (Mitigating adverse ecological impacts of open ocean fisheries) project. He too praises “the complementing of knowledge that European projects allow,” adding that: “Without these European initiatives I’d have to close my lab.”

… and its sticking points

The mechanics of the ERA-NETs are well established.What is also essential is political buy-in from the start. In an effort to improve this aspect of European collaboration, the concept of joint programming has been developed. This new approach aims to involve European ministers ex ante in decision making and to join forces in research on major societal challenges like Europe’s ageing population, climate change and the financial crisis.

The 32 European Research Councils, which together form the EUROHORCs group, complain bitterly of a lack of funding for researchers to travel. Researchers have access to bursaries; their families do not. Many scientists therefore stop travelling once they have a family.

National programme managers, in turn, have pinpointed details that need to be improved and have already planned measures to offset the flaws in the European initiatives. The ERANET Learning Platform will facilitate exchanges between research coordinators and the sharing of information for researchers on a common portal (NETWATCH). Identification of best practices for calls for proposals is also provided. Finally, Véronique Halloin raises the question of ‘virtual common purses’ in the ERA-NETs. “Currently, there is no real common purse,” she explains. Each country keeps its money for itself and redistributes it among selected researchers in its own country. This means that if one country has crucial scientists for three of the best projects but can fund only one, the other two projects may not be carried out at all.

Having researchers from many countries working together is far from easy. Not only does it require the EU to improve collaboration between its research programmes, but these initiatives call for constant and rigorous assessment. This is a process that will require time to mature. But Rome was not built in a day.

Élise Dubuisson