Brussels, 14 Dec 2004
Each year, Europe as a whole invests some 30 billion euro in the life sciences - research that deals with living organisms including plants animals and humans. Despite being roughly equal to the total amount spent in the US, however, this investment is spread across 25 different countries and policy frameworks, and as a result is used in a far more fragmented manner.
To address this situation, the Commission is keen to identify and promote synergies between the funders of basic life science research in Europe, and with this in mind it organised an international conference in Brussels on 13 December to explore the possibilities.
To underscore the importance of basic research in general to the life sciences, Mike Bevan, a professor at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, used the example of his own particular field, genomics - the study of genes and their function. 'Genomics itself could only have arrived through basic advances in physics and chemistry,' he argued.
In turn, fundamental advances in genomics have provided invaluable tools for other life scientists, including complete genetic sequences for some 250 species, which contribute to providing what Professor Bevan describes as a 'periodic table of biology'.
This overspill of results to other areas highlights another important aspect of basic research in modern life sciences - it's increasingly complex and interdisciplinary nature. According to Christian Patermann, Director for biotechnology, agriculture and food at the Commission's Research DG: 'Complexity has to be dealt with perhaps more in the life sciences than in other areas, and we need multidisciplinary approaches [...] to overcome this fragmentation and complexity.'
Given the need for such multidisciplinary approaches, even in fundamental investigation, Mr Patermann emphasised that the possible creation of a European Research Council (ERC), with an emphasis on funding individual teams, would not fulfil all the basic research needs of the life sciences. 'Basic research can also be collaborative, let's not forget.'
Another crucial element in the delivery of high quality basic life science research is the availability of suitable infrastructures, such as bioinformatics resources and tissue collections. However, according to Director-General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Fotis Kafatos: 'One size doesn't fit all. In the life sciences we are not talking about mega-machines, but constantly evolving shared resources. The cost of these infrastructures is similar to that of the physical sciences, but instead of being all upfront it requires ongoing investment.'
In order to provide such infrastructures in coordinated way, Professor Kafatos called for the creation of a European programme for life science infrastructures. Such a programme would have to be based on ongoing evaluation of requirements, linked to the EU's thematic priorities, and embedded in European centres of excellence 'in order to make them responsive to the needs of leading scientists,' he said. Professor Kafatos finished by stressing that 'infrastructures are required for, but are different from, basic research.'
Returning to the main theme of finding better methods of coordinating basic research funding in Europe, the Director of the Health directorate at the Commission's Research DG, Octavi Quintana Trias, asserted that: 'Funding basic research is one of the main responsibilities of public funding institutions such as the European Commission.' While private companies place more of an emphasis on pre clinical research in life sciences, public bodies should focus more on basic research, he said.
However, recognising that EU funding for life sciences research currently only amounts to around 5 per cent of the European total - albeit a considerable lump sum - Dr Trias announced the Commission's intention to create an annual 'funders' forum' where Europe's main sponsors of life sciences research will meet to discuss synergies and seek to address challenges in a coordinated fashion.
The idea of a funders' forum was welcomed by other key players involved in the conference. Frank Gannon, Executive Director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) described such a body as essential, and added that the participation of industry representatives and scientists would also be an important factor. Bertil Andersson, Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation (ESF), said: 'We will benefit from higher levels of coordination between national public funders of life sciences, but it should go further, promoting coordination between different types of funders, including charities, private companies, agencies etc.'
With discussions still underway as to the structure and scope of the forum, it will be some time before Europe can fully overcome the current fragmentation of basic research funding in the life sciences. However, if any were unconvinced of the pressing need to do so, Mr Patermann concluded reminded the audience of the conclusion reached by Heads of State and Government in Barcelona in 2002: 'After information technology, life sciences and biotechnology represent the next wave of technological revolution in the knowledge-based economy.'
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