From where I sit - Collaboration can be win-win

May 28, 2009

Tuberculosis has re-emerged as a serious health problem. Unless significant steps are taken to raise awareness and align prevention strategies across Europe, all the progress made in controlling the disease will be undone, says a new report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council.

The disease is a global public health problem with considerable economic impact. A growing number of TB strains are resistant to the commonly used antibiotics, necessitating the use of more complicated, expensive and less well-tolerated treatment schedules.

The issue highlights the urgent need for co-operation, a joint research agenda and long-term global research collaboration.

With TB, a shared European policy agenda would be a good start. But innovation in diagnostics, drug regimens and vaccines demands a substantial increase in funding for TB research. More than money is needed. Europe has a number of strong research groups in this field, competing for funding and doing what they can to be the first and the best, with a weak tradition of collaboration.

Since the 1970s, competition for research funding has become the rule across Europe. It was designed to guarantee quality and stimulate ambition. And it did just that - but not without harmful side-effects.

Recognising the benefits of research co-operation, the Netherlands began to pursue collaboration in the early 1990s. Astronomy was among the first fields where strong university research groups joined forces instead of competing for funding, facilities and observation slots. A little later, the divide between university-based research and industrial research was bridged as well. In catalysis research, an ambitious consortium was established that became the model for several others.

The Centre for Translational Molecular Medicine is the most recent creation of this type. There, 13 university research institutes co-operate with researchers from 29 specialised small businesses and 15 larger businesses. Together, they work on some 20 projects with public-private participation and total funding of EUR250 million (£220 million). The Dutch Government contributes considerable sums of money to this collaboration, and it supports the even broader coalition with the Biomedical Materials Centre and the Top Institute Pharma, which were created earlier and work along the same lines.

The template for these kinds of co-operatives is not the grand national institute. What is encouraged instead is multi-campus co-operation with limited overhead costs and fair arrangements for intellectual property. Research, resource sharing and recruitment is carried out in a "pre-competitive" setting.

After some 15 years, this co-operative model has been widely acknowledged as a smart way of doing research. It has considerably enhanced performance and has clearly demonstrated the value of pre-competitive research in public-private partnerships.

In the present rainy days of financial crisis, these partnerships offer unexpected benefits. When small companies go out of business, their research staff may move over to join their university partners. There they can continue their research work and wait for the return of sunshine, meanwhile seeing the wisdom of not living by competition alone.

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