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The new funding initiative supports areas in which Europe shows strong competence and creates new opportunities for scientists
Horizon 2020, the European Union’s new funding mechanism, is the concrete translation of Europe 2020, a 10-year strategy proposed by the European Commission to advance Europe’s economy in a “smart, inclusive, and sustainable” way. It reflects the widespread sentiment that Europe has fallen behind the rest of the world in innovation. By supporting areas in which Europe already shows strong competence, especially at the near market stage where crucial funding tends to falls short, the European Union aims to emerge as a world leader in the areas targeted and grow its economy at the same time. Along the way, it is creating new opportunities for scientists. By Gunjan Sinha
This year saw the launch of the European Union’s (E.U.) eagerly anticipated new funding mechanism, Horizon 2020. Between 2014 and 2020, the European Commission will make €78.6 billion (US$99.7 billion) available to fund research and innovation throughout the E.U. The budget is a €25 billion (US$31.7 billion) increase over the E.U.’s previous funding mechanism—the 7th Framework Programme (FP7)—and takes the concept of goal-oriented research several steps beyond its predecessor.
There is a demand for science to be more responsive and to address the urgently complex societal challenges of our times.
Horizon 2020 is organized into three core themes: excellent science, industrial leadership, and societal challenges. The themes continue many of those introduced under FP7, especially toward the end of FP7’s tenure when it shifted to a challenge-based thematic approach. Horizon 2020, however, in addition to a 60% increase in funding for basic research, goes wholesale on the challenge-based approach, says Michael Jennings, a European Commission spokesperson, and emphasizes developing solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental and societal threats to health and well being.
“There is a demand for science to be more responsive and to address the urgently complex societal challenges of our times,” says Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research Innovation and Science. “As a politician I am evangelical about the power of science to improve and enrich our lives and to sustain our economy.”
The societal challenges pillar secured 38.53% of the budget—the largest chunk of the three—and is further broken down into key themes that include health, forestry, marine research, efficient energy, green transport, climate, and environment. The focus on key themes aims to inspire more multidisciplinary approaches, says Jennings, and encourage researchers to come up with the right approach rather than prescribe it. Since innovation is at the core of Horizon 2020, it also has a goal of 20% small and medium enterprise (SME) participation in all funded projects and will support more late- stage research, such as pilot and demonstration projects.
Implicit in funding such large research consortia are the job opportunities they create for early-career scientists. Large consortia connect researchers around the globe with each other and also with industry, creating a path through which young scientists can move on or up in their careers.
Late-stage funding for sustainable energy
Novozymes is an industrial biotechnology company that produces and sells enzymes and microorganisms used in people’s everyday lives, from processed food and detergents to farming and other industrial processes. As the cost of biotechnology comes down, many chemicals are being replaced with biotech, says Peder Holk Nielsen, president and chief executive officer of Novozymes. The company now produces millions of unique enzyme molecules each month when just a few years ago it could only produce thousands, he explains. “Access to [the technology] is exploding,” he says, which in turn presents a huge opportunity to apply the technology toward a greener economy.
The partnership’s primary focus is to provide a renewable alternative to the fossil-based fuels that power automobiles and are components of industrially produced chemicals and materials such as fabrics and plastics. The company and its partners have already built a biomass refinery in Crescentino, Italy that produces 75 million liters a year of cellulosic ethanol from agricultural waste using the company’s enzymes. The majority of the €3.7 billion will be spent on building at least five additional production plants across Europe by 2020. “These are essential to show the technical and commercial viability of new generations of biobased products and fuels at an industrial scale and to reduce perceived investment risks,” says Holk Nielsen.
Each plant is expected to generate between 12,000 and 18,000 feedstock supply chain jobs annually, according to a report by National Non-Food Crops Centre, bioeconomy consultants in York, England. The boom in industrial biotechnology is also creating jobs for scientists. Novozymes, for example, is “hiring a lot of people globally,” says Peter Tolstoy, a people and organization partner responsible for hiring scientists at the company, which has 36 global locations and employs some 1,300 scientists.
The Bio-Based Industries (BBI) Consortium is exemplary of the kind of late-stage innovation activities that Horizon 2020 is aiming to fund, not only because of its potential to grow the economy and create jobs, but also because such consortia build relationships between industry and academia that foster innovation. Another key change from FP7 is 5% more funding to support SMEs that typically take university research and turn it into marketable goods. Twenty percent of the budget available for research on societal challenges and leading technologies—almost €9 billion (US$11.4 billion) in grants over seven years—will be available to SMEs. Of this amount, €3 billion (US$3.8 billion) will be provided through a dedicated “SME instrument,” a specific line of calls, to fund feasibility studies and demonstration projects. Part of the E.U. research budget will also be used to back public and private loans to SMEs.
“The €9 billion should be seen as a minimum,” says Geoghegan-Quinn. “SMEs are the backbone of the European economy and account for two thirds of total employment.”
Another consortium with large SME participation working toward greening the economy is LEANWIND (Logistic Efficiencies And Naval architecture for Wind Installations with Novel Developments) headed by Jimmy Murphy, lecturer at Beaufort Research, University College Cork, Ireland. Securing one of the last awards under FP7, LEANWIND is a consortium of 31 partners from 11 countries, half of which are small companies working toward making wind energy competitive with fossil fuel energy sources. LEANWIND will receive €10 million (US$12.7 million) from the European Commission between 2014 and 2017 to find ways to streamline the installation, management, and maintenance of offshore wind farms. Industry partners will contribute an additional €5 million (US$6.3 million). To cut costs, “there is an entire logistical chain of events that can be optimized,” says Murphy.
For early-career scientists, collaborative research projects that include industry are invaluable for the contacts they provide. Katie Lynch, for example, landed her job as a LEANWIND work package leader after collaborating with Murphy on a related FP7-funded project. While working on that project, the 30 year old Lynch, who has a Master’s degree in renewable energy, was asked to help put together the FP7 proposal for LEANWIND, with the intention that she would work on the project if it were funded. The experience of writing the FP7 proposal and of working in her current position managing finance and market assessments has given her precious experience in leadership, she says, as well as put her in touch with industry leaders “You have to put together a consortium of people with whom you would like to work with over and over again and maintain those contacts,” she says.
Such consortia also build long-term connections between academics and industry, boosting job prospects. “It would be wonderful if it was natural for academics to move to industry and vice versa,” says Geoghegan-Quinn. “In the U.S. this happens all the time. We are setting up the architecture to allow that to happen [here in Europe].”
Basic research not neglected
Even though the societal challenges pillar of Horizon 2020 is goal oriented, basic research can be funded if scientists can show practical relevance. Since Horizon 2020 just launched, there are a several projects funded under FP7 that the European Commission considers exemplary of the type of life science research Horizon 2020 aims to fund.
The Natural Immunomodulators as Novel Immunotherapies for Type I diabetes (NAIMIT) consortium, for example, investigated a controversial theory about diabetes type 1 to come up with new therapies. Composed of 14 academic partners and two biotech companies, the group was brought together by Chantal Mathieu, head of clinical and experimental endocrinology at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Pancreatic beta cells aren’t just “sitting ducks” in the pathogenesis of diabetes, Mathieu explains. There’s an active dialogue between beta cells and the immune system that mediates beta cell death.” Mathieu brought in partners whom she thought could illuminate this process and develop therapeutic approaches based on it.
It is through NAIMIT that Fabio Grieco landed his current job as a postdoctoral fellow at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium, Laboratory of Experimental Medicine, and ULB Center for Diabetes Research. In 2010, Grieco was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Siena, Italy when his supervisor, Francesco Dotta, began collaborating with Mathieu. When Grieco finished his Ph.D., he wanted to work abroad. His advisor suggested taking a fellowship position with Decio Eizirik, another NAIMIT partner at the University of Brussels. He has been at the center for diabetes research since 2012. Although his fellowship time is up, he has the opportunity to continue his research at the center.
The NAIMIT consortium was funded under FP7 with a total budget of €14.25 million (US$18.08 million), of which the European Union contributed €10.92 million (US$13.8 million). The rest came from participating universities or individual research grants. E.U. funding under FP7 ends this year. Two of the projects, however, have entered the clinic, says Mathieu, and research on a bacterial system to deliver immune modulating compounds systemically described in the group’s 2012 paper “is extremely promising,” she adds.
Another exemplary health project funded under FP7 is The Early Nutrition Project, which includes researchers from 36 institutions in 12 countries across Europe, the United States, and Australia. The project is being coordinated out of Ludwig-Maximilian’s-University in Munich, Germany and aims to understand how early nutrition programming and lifestyle factors impact the rates of obesity and related disorders. Research projects include studying how maternal weight during pregnancy affects the long-term health of babies, how the placenta regulates fetal growth and how early nutrition affects children’s long-term risk of metabolic diseases. The project is funded with €8.96 million (US$ 11.37 million) from the European Union between 2012 and 2016, with a total budget of €11.12 million (US$ 14.1 million).
Such large research consortia open up opportunities for young people in other ways too. Sebastian Rauschert studied sociology and psychology as an undergraduate. He then earned a Master’s degree in public health. He has “always been interested in disease prevention and nutrition,” he says. When he saw that the University of Munich offered a Ph.D. program in early nutrition through The Early Nutrition Project, he jumped at the chance. As part of his Ph.D. thesis, he is studying whether breastfeeding influences obesity related metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, by analyzing data from the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort Study, which has followed over 1,000 babies since 1989. This month Rauschert will travel to Perth to spend six months working directly with his collaborators. The trip is funded through the brain mobility project, established under the Early Nutrition Project to enable young scientists working on the project the opportunity to travel abroad and work with collaborators, and incidentally give them a networking boost.
E.U. grants carry cache
For early-career scientists, landing a job with E.U.-funded consortia isn’t the only stepping-stone available. They can apply for individual European Research Council (ERC) grants, which with a budget of €13.1 billion (US$ 16.6 billion), represents a 60% increase over FP7, or a Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) grant, both of which are included under the Excellent Science pillar. MSCA grants are awarded in all scientific disciplines at all stages of researchers’ careers, from Ph.D. candidates to highly experienced researchers.
For those who beat out the competition to win an ERC grant, the job prospects become even brighter. “It’s immediately considered as positive recognition of the quality and ambition of the scientist,” says Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the ERC. “There is competition now among institutions to secure these people.”
It also can make scientists more attractive to industry, says Bourguignon. One Swedish ERC grant winner, for example, was able to garner funding for two startups based on the credibility the grants gave him, says Bourguignon. “He initially didn’t think he was a candidate. His colleagues pushed him to apply.”
For Horizon 2020 applicants, proposals that take a multidisciplinary approach are more likely to be successful. “Be prepared to step outside of your comfort zone,” says Geoghegan-Quinn. “We are asking scientists to be bold and brave and not stay pigeon holed in the same area.”
Horizon 2020 boasts other improvements over FP7 that include a move to online application and review, shorter review times, and streamlined auditing—measures that not only modernize the process but also address major criticisms of its predecessor. On measuring Horizon 2020’s success, Geoghegan-Quinn’s says: “I am hoping the money we are investing in these societal challenges will not only make my life better but also give hope to young people.”