7 min readFunding Trends in Biological Sciences – Europe

London, UK — “The 21st century is the age of bioscience”, states the recent annual report from BBSRC, one of the main UK funding bodies for biological research. “A biological revolution, – they write in their Strategic Plan, – is unfolding in the same way that advances in physics shaped the early 20th century and great leaps in electronics and computing have transformed our lives over the past 40 years.”

Given the importance of biosciences and the growing interest in the latest developments and breakthroughs (take any newspaper and read headlines in the “Science” section), we decided to take a look at what funding options are available for scientists, who sponsors the research, and how we all, public and private sectors, could benefit.

This article is the first in a series of Insights dedicated to science funding, where we will be looking at funding trends and opportunities in the United States, Asia and the rest of the world.

Science funding across the European Union

In the summer of 1945, at the end of the World War II, a document signed by Sir Charles Darwin was submitted to the Royal Society of England, requesting “The Balanced Development of Science in the United Kingdom”. Its main concern, – writes physical chemist Michael Polanyi in “The Republic of Science”, – was linked with the apprehension that some subjects of greater importance were being pursued with less vigour than others of lesser importance. The Royal Society was asked to compile lists of subjects deserving preference in order to fill gaps.

It was the first attempt to unify research priorities within the UK, which came at the time of great financial needs in Europe in an aftermath of the war. However, back then, the impact of this document on the community was negligible.

Science these days is very popular, very “in.” But very few people understand how expensive it is to do science. I wish science communicators would do more to impress upon people just how much it costs to do even basic research, let alone other pursuits.

Anonymous – graduate student from the USA (in response to the Scicasts Survey on Biosciences Funding).

Europe had long recovered from the war when another blow hit the world in 2008, this time in the form of a financial crisis. As the countries’ GDP dropped, massive budget cuts followed, of which education and public R&D sector were often the first to be affected. But despite the financial difficulties, the European Union members agreed on the importance of supporting their R&D sector and, according to the OECD report of 2014, “innovation and technology are now expected to help restore competitiveness, boost productivity, upgrade industrial structure and address global challenges.”

According to the last amendment to the Lisbon Treaty, which took effect in 2009, the EU members accepted the responsibility of directing 3% of their GDP to research and development. Countries like Germany achieved this target by 2012/13, whereas Portugal only reached a mark of 1.5% by then and still has a long way to go. In 2013, R&D expenditure across the EU ranged from 0.48% in Cyprus to 3.32% in Finland.

Funding rates have not kept rate with GDP growth. Media reports the millions of dollars spent on basic research, but doesn’t report what a small percentage of a total budget that actually is (usually >1-3%). The amount of funding available today is less than it was 5, 10 or even 15 years ago based on percentage.

Anonymous – academic researcher from Germany (in response to the Scicasts Survey on Biosciences Funding).

To overcome the effects of economic crisis and to create the conditions for sustainable and inclusive growth, in 2010 the European Commission issued a ten-year strategy known as Europe 2020. The strategy is formed around five headline targets to be achieved by the end of 2020: employment; research and development; climate and energy; education; social inclusion and poverty reduction.

In terms of R&D, Europe committed itself to become a place without borders – creating a common European Research Area (ERA), similar to what has been achieved in the economic sector. The goal, of course, implies unified science policies and funding and brings us back to the question posed 70 years ago: how to best balance the development of research across different countries?

There are efforts to have joint activities, co-funded by member states and European Commission. It is still largely insufficient. For me, that is the main reason why we are behind the United States, because they have the NIH and here it is still fragmented. There is still a need to do much better, especially if we want to be competitive, regarding the US and Asia.

Prof. Michel Goldman, head of the Institute for Medical Immunology (Charleroi, Belgium) and co-chair of the Catalyzer selection committee at BIOVISION 2015 (told Scicasts in an exclusive interview – see below).

The process started long before the crisis, when in 1984 the first Framework Programme for Community scientific and technical activities was implemented by the Commission of the European Communities (later called European Commission). The Programme defines a list of common priorities and objectives for Europe, such as agricultural competitiveness; industrial competitiveness (with special attention to the new technologies); scientific competitiveness; adaptation of R&D activities already undertaken, by means of their incorporation into the overall strategy: energy, raw materials, environment, health and safety; and a gradual increase in the Community’s financial resources. Indeed, the budget of the following Framework Programmes rose from an equivalent of €3.75 billion in 1984 to over €50 for the Seventh Framework implemented in 2007.

The latest Programme FP8 which began in 2014, carries a special name Horizon 2020: Framework for Research and Innovation (http://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/) and as part of the Europe 2020 strategy, its aimed specifically at supporting R&D in the post-crisis period. An elaborate Work Programme that contains 18 separate sections through which research teams can seek funding.

The program is structured around three interlinked priorities – (1) Excellent Science; (2) Industrial Leadership; and (3) Societal Challenges. The largest sponsor of academic research projects under this scheme is the European Research Council (ERC) with its allocated budget of €13 billion. In addition, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme (MSCA) offers a range of grants for researchers at all stages of their career, with a special focus on doctoral candidates and junior postdocs.

The Industrial Leadership section, as its name states, is setting the goal to bring the industrial partners on board, with a particular focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). “If current trends continue, – states the official Working Paper of the European Commission, – 20,000 SMEs will have received €6 billion of FP7 funding (+/- 11% of the total) by the end of the programme.”

The Societal Challenges priority will support activities “from research to market” and provide funding in the areas of health and wellbeing; food security, sustainable agriculture research and bio-economy; energy; transport; climate action and raw materials; inclusive, innovative and secure societies. The total budget of this section comprises about €31 billion.

The current approach seems to be towards funding applied research instead of basic science. This means that even of the limited funding pool, less goes to basic research projects with a less-defined industrial/biomedical application. This is difficult particularly for model systems and basic developmental genetics work.

Anonymous – academic researcher from Germany (in response to the Scicasts Survey on Biosciences Funding).

In taking their desicions, the European Commission is advised by its own board of experts and independent policy organizations, such as the European Science Foundation. Established in 1974, the Foundation has recently announced a major change of focus. From coordinating European research and academic networking, it will now switch to “activities designed to support and sustain the funding and conduct of scientific research across Europe.”

Another intergovernmental initiative, spanning across the EU and beyond, is EUREKA (http://www.eurekanetwork.org/) – a Pan-European organization funding a variety of R&D projects with a potential market value. Founded in 1985 in response to Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense (otherwise known as Star Wars) Initiative, EUREKA now includes 47 member countries, covering all 28 members of the EU. In cooperation with Horizon 2020, it recently announced its new Eurostars Programme with a total budget of €1.15 billion, aiming to sponsor R&D performing SMEs. A typical project funded within this program would cost about €1.4 million and involve a collaboration between 2-3 different European countries. The majority of projects supported by EUREKA lie in the area of electronics and IT, however, a significant amount (~23%) of the Eurostars-funded projects are related to biological sciences and technology.

In addition to financial support, networking and communication is required to create a true cooperative research union. Thus, while Horizon 2020 aims to provide the money, another organization COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology, http://www.cost.eu/) is promoting cooperation between senior scientists working in similar research areas. For instance, “Native Mass-Spectrometry and Related Methods in Structural Biology” is one of the recently established networks between eight European countries, including Belgium, Germany and the UK. To bring the researchers together, COST sponsors various networking events, such as meetings, workshops, conferences and training schools.

Last, but not least, the cherry on the cake for those scientists working abroad comes in the form of a new Pan-European pension arrangement. As international working experience is becoming a pre-requisite for future group leaders, the European Commission announced its RESAVER initiative (http://ec.europa.eu/euraxess/index.cfm/rights/resaver). Once put in place in 2015, it promises to enable researchers to move around the EU and retain their affiliation to the same fund.

To be continued. This was the first part of our research report on Science Funding in Europe. The second part will follow next week. Meanwhile, we are looking at the issue from the audience’s point of view – please take 5 minutes to participate in our survey on Funding for Biosciences here and leave your comments. We will publish a detailed analysis of the results and your expert comments after part 2 of the report.

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