The European Union's Joint Technology Initiatives are gearing up to launch their first calls for proposals, with more than €3 billion (£2.3 billion) in public money available to fund projects.
The concept of such initiatives is new to the EU's research agenda. Introduced under the umbrella of its Seventh Framework Programme for research, running from 2007 to 2013, these are ten-year public-private partnerships between the EU and industry that aim to further industrial research.
"They are targeted at key areas where we think research can contribute to wider European competitiveness," said Sean O'Reagain, the European Commission's deputy head of the unit for major European initiatives.
"It is the first time at European level that public-private partnerships are being set up to pursue ambitious common research objectives," he said.
The first four initiatives were officially agreed in December. They are nanoelectronics (Eniac); embedded computing systems (Artemis); the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI); and greener air transport (the Clean Sky JTI). A further initiative, covering fuel cells and hydrogen, is expected to get the stamp of approval in May.
Each initiative has a board made up of joint funders - the Commission, industry and, in some cases, national governments - which agree its research priorities.
Researchers across Europe can expect calls for proposals in the first four areas to be issued by the middle of the year. Mr O'Reagain said that the general expectation was that each initiative, rather than the Commission, would issue one call a year until 2013. The proposals would be evaluated independently.
Bids will be invited from consortia composed of university academics, two or more large companies from different member states, research organisations and small to medium-size enterprises. Non-governmental organisations and regulators may also form part of the consortia.
"Clearly, academics will play an important role in the actual research done by the JTIs through the know-how they will bring," said Mr O'Reagain. He urged academics to link early to their respective initiatives, which hold regular forums to bring together would-be partners.
Of the €54 billion the EU has allocated to FP7, €3.15 billion has been earmarked for the initiatives, including funds for academic and industry participation in the consortia. Industry's contribution is expected to match that funding, but will be mostly realised in kind through the provision of laboratories, staff and equipment.
The combined public-private funding for the four initiatives are €3 billion for nanoelectronics, €2.7 billion for embedded computer systems, €2 billion for innovative medicines, €1.6 billion for greener air transport; there is €1 billion for the proposed fuel cells and hydrogen initiative.
UK researchers are expected to be heavily involved in the IMI, which has just held its first board meeting. The undertaking will involve about 25 pharmaceutical companies - represented by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries Associations - joining forces with the Commission to fund research to reduce drug development bottlenecks.
Chris Watkins, the Translation Theme Leader at the Medical Research Council, is the UK representative on the IMI's member states group.
"The UK has a lot of strength in this kind of medical research and there are big opportunities for UK researchers to avail themselves of a substantial amount of EU funding," he said.
Dr Watkins added that academics could get "fully engaged in" the science required by the initiative.
"Academics say 'we don't do drug discovery', but this is not what is being targeted here ... This is pre-competitive research (so no one company gains a competitive advantage) around improving the science of drug discovery, getting the drugs through the whole research and development process and into patients quicker, more effectively and efficiently," he said.
So far, the IMI has released a strategic research agenda and is expected to make its first call at the beginning of April. While the precise contents are not known, there are strong indications.
Based on what has been highlighted in the strategic research agenda, Dr Watkins said, "What we are hearing is that the priorities for the first call are going to be around diabetes, brain disorder, respiratory disease, education and training, safety prediction and pharmacovigilance. The board will make a final decision in early April."
Dr Watkins stressed that although the MRC and other groups had already been working hard, holding meetings and events to alert UK researchers, it was not too late to get involved. "Remember that the JTI is set up for ten years and this is only the first set of calls," he said.