Trans-national funding networks
The 6th Framework Research Program (FP6) from the European Union (EU) is running from 2002 to 2006. With a sum total of 17.5 billion Euros at its disposal, it has the world’s largest interconnected research budget. In comparison to its forerunner, FP5, the budget has been raised by 17%. FP6 was built on the continuity and simplification of FP5 measures but also on the establishment of new funding mechanisms such as so-called ’Integrated Projects’ and ‘Networks of Excellence’. On the political level FP6 focuses on pooling European research into a European Research Area (ERA). To realize the ERA a new funding scheme aimed at improving funding co-operation has been established, the Era-Net (European Research Area Network). Two well-established funding instruments of EU project funding were used for the implementation of ERA-networks: the Coordinated Actions (CAs) and the Specific Support Actions (SSAs).
The Era-Net scheme aims to achieve a better integration of European research by creating transnational coordination and by improving cooperation of research programs, which are already running on the national and regional level. To this end, structures of European research funding are combined with flexible instruments, including novel mechanisms of co-ordination, to create theme-specific research funding initiatives. The establishment of an Era-Net follows a decentralized ‘bottom-up’ approach, with several central players. The national or regional funding agencies such as ministries and project-executing organizations, charities or research councils propose relevant topics for an Era-Net, in cooperation with the relevant scientific societies, industry associations and research managers. For the establishment of CAs and SSAs, project proposals are submitted to the European Commission by international consortia.
In this context, SSA measures are often forerunners of CA activities. CA consortia consist on avarage of 14 partner countries. The project proposals are evaluated according to certain standards for project evaluation, which take 6 criteria into account: relevance, effects, impact, quality of coordination, management, and the ctitical mass of the consortium as well as mobilization of resources. In contrast to their classical role, the funding agencies act as applicants for third-party funds.
In several of the partner countries the research ministries as well as the project management organizations (‘Projektträger‘) are members of the Era-Net consortium. Whereas the ministries are responsible for the strategic and political aspects of the initiative, the project management organizations work on the technical and administrative aspects.
All Era-Net projects can be divided into three phases: 1. Landscaping/Identification of enablers and barriers and dissemination, 2. Definition and implementation of strategic activities, and 3. transnational calls for tenders according to common rules, accepted by all partners. In the first step, the aim is to establish a focused cooperation of the national funding schemes with regard to research topics and funding structure. In the medium term the aim is to establish transnational funding schemes.
Era-Nets receive up to 3 million Euros over 26 to 60 months from the European Commission for coordinating the regional or national programs. Within FP6, five calls to establish Era-Nets have been conducted. 229 proposals were submitted, representing a budget of 391.03 million Euros. 115 thereof have been positively evaluated and at least 106 are funded as CA or SSA by the European Commission with a budget of 187.72 million Euros. At 46%, the rate of success is relatively high. Figure 1 shows the percentage of the Era-nets which make up the various research areas.
Life Sciences Era-Nets
Among the positively evaluated Era-Nets, Life Sciences Era-Nets ranks second with a percentage of 24% (26 of 106 Era-Nets). Nine of 22 Era-Nets in the field of molecular life sciences are conducted with the participation of Germany (see table 1), four thereof belong to the ‘health research’ focus, five are part of the ‘biotechnology’ focus of the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF).
Era-Net Plant Genomics
The Era-Net Plant Genomics (Era-Net PG, www.erapg.org) is a community project of 11 European countries which link and coordinate the national funding programs in plant genomics. The Era-Net (2/2004-2/2008) is coordinated by the Netherlands and involves Flanders, Denmark, France, Finland, the UK, Italy, Norway, Austria, Spain, and Germany. The Era-Net aims to focus and integrate funding on a European scale as well as to improve the competitiveness of European science in the plant breeding, agro-biotech, and crop protection sectors. Germany is participating with the BMBF, the Projektträger Jülich, and the German Research Organisation, the DFG. A transnational call for applications opened on February 1st, 2006. The BMBF puts a focus on continuing the established successful cooperation with France and Spain in this field of research. Additionally, new industry-led projects aim to improve the cooperation between academia and industry.
The ’European network of transnational collaborative RTD for SMEs’ (small and medium-sized enterprises) project in the field of biotechnology’ (Eurotrans-Bio, www.eurotransbio.net) focuses on the improvement of competitiveness and cooperation of biotech SMEs by funding R&D projects consisting of industry consortia. Germany, France, Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, and the Basque region as well as Flanders are participating in this programm, which is running from 11/2004 to 11/2008. Eurotrans-Bio, which is coordinated by France, aims to create an integrated transnational funding program. The first call for submissions was published in January 2006 with a project volume of up to a60 million. More than 90 projects have been proposed for funding; 32 thereof were selected for funding.
The Era-Net Pathogenomics (Trans-European cooperation and co-ordination of genome sequencing and functional genomics of human pathogenic microorganisms) is coordinated by Germany. The focus is on the genomics of pathogenic microorganisms and aims to improve the diagnosis and therapies for human infectious diseases. A first simultaneous transnational call was published in December 2005, involving Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain. The budget is 12 million Euros.
The Era-Net Era-SysBio (www.erasysbio.net), which aims to structure a European Research Area for systems biology, was started in February 2006 and is coordinated by the BMBF and Projektträger Jülich. The Era-Net is the successor of the first European network for systems biology (EuSysBio), initially launched in 2002. EuSysBio identified the relevant players and structures (such as policy and research stakeholders and appropriate funding programs) within the participating countries. Within EuSysBio another transnational initiative called ‘Systems biology in microorganisms’ (SysMo) was launched. Austria, Germany, Norway, The Netherlands, and the UK participated in SysMo, which is an important pilot project within EraSysBio. Other coordinated calls and strategic activities within the 12 partner countries (Austria, Flanders, France, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Russian Federation, Slovenia, and the UK) are to follow.
The Era-Net Industrial Biotechnology (Era-IB) is a community project of 12 EU member states aimed at improving the cooperation and competitiveness in the field of White Biotechnology. Germany is participating with the BMBF and the Projektträger Jülich. The initiative was launched in April 2006 and will run for 60 months, inolving Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the UK, Israel, Croatia, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Spain.
The Era-Net for Aging Research, Era-Age (http://era-age.group.shef.ac.uk), involves 12 EU countries: Austria, France, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Luxemburg, Norway, the Netherlands, Romania, Sweden, and the UK. Germany has participated with the BMBF and the project management organization DLR since 2005. The objective of Era-Age is to coordinate research in this field in a ‘European strategy for Ageing Research.’ The initiative, which is coordinated by the UK, is to boost this research field, which puts a focus on the rapidly aging societies, within the next two decades.
A specialty of this Era-Net was that ‘national coordinators for aging research’ have been established in the first two years of Era-Age. They overlooked national funding programs and research centers for aging. The information of this survey will form the basis for the establishment of common funding initiatives.
About 5,000 to 7,000 of the 30,000 diseases currently known are so-called Orphan Diseases. When considered as a whole, these illnesses are not rare at all. In Europe they account for 20,000 diseased individuals . The ’Era-Net for research programs in rare diseases’, E-RARE, is formed by the funding bodies of France, Germany, Belgium, Israel, The Netherlands, and Turkey under the coordination of the French Institute des maladies rares (GIS). The move is aimed at strategic integration followed by international calls. The preparation of such calls are coordinated by the BMBF and the project management organization DLR. After finalizing a SSA (12/2003-2/2005), the E-RARE started with its working program in June 2006. It will run for 4 years (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Era-Nets within FP6:
Although many of the running Era-Net projects are just before the outset of their project phases, it is possible to draw preliminary conclusions following the end of the last call.
Three years after the Era-Nets were established, the participating member states have identified research fields of strategic interest, which are to be funded transnationally. The inclusion of stakeholders from research and industry in this iterative decision process assures the acceptance for funding of the selected research fields and of the Era-Net process as a whole.
It was essential to combine European excellence in research with measures for technology transfer, and with elements such as public-private partnerships, which had already been established within German research funding. One example for such measures is the funding of industry-led research consortia within the Era-Net Plant Genomics, as well as in EurotransBio. Germany participates in four Era-Net calls with a totel budget of 76 million Euros. Only 39% of all Era-Nets are common funding initiatives. The others aim most often at coordination, with a focus on the clustering of pre-existing projects or the identification of common interests. A second important focus is on scientific training.
Interestingly, one can observe national specialization in countries which participate in different Era-Nets, one of which is the funding of young researchers by Austria. Owing to their specialization Era-Nets are hard to compare. Thus, evaluation parameters such as the budget of common calls, funded projects and researchers, publications, and patents can only be determined after the projects have been finished. Besides research funding, Era-Nets have another positive effect: partners can learn about the funding policies, the working procedures, and the decision process in other EU countries.
At least, differences exist at the level of evaluation, action lines and competencies of decision-makers. Thus it is obvious that it is sometimes difficult to integrate the different national specialties. Synchronization of national regulations with regard to the objectives of the Era-Net initiative are to be a challenge. To make the Era-Nets a success it will be essential to define the different national strategic goals precisely and to optimize the cooperation of member states with similar objectives. For the BMBF this means to put a focus on the development of research clusters, on the implementation of tech transfer, and on creation of community resources.