Brussels, 26 Nov 2004
Two years into the 'new and emerging science and technology' (NEST) programme, introduced for the first time with the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), researchers, the European Commission and observers are praising its achievements.
In an interview with CORDIS News, Head of Unit for 'Anticipation of scientific and technological needs: fundamental research' William Cannell looked back over some of the programme's achievements to date, as well as its challenges, before turning his attention to the next phase of NEST.
The number of projects proposed in response to calls for proposals has been high, top researchers are participating in the programme's projects, the research community has applauded its user-friendliness, while project evaluators, independent observers and the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) have commended the initiative and called for a higher budget for such research in the next framework programme.
The programme has also now developed its 'own personality and an identity', meaning that researchers are able to engage with NEST in a more pragmatic way, said Mr Cannell.
NEST is unique in that the programme's research priorities were not determined when FP6 began. The 215 million euro at the disposal of NEST is reserved for research in new and emerging areas that offer real potential, and that cut across or lie outside the thematic priority areas funded elsewhere in FP6. Able to respond to unexpected major developments, the programme is very dynamic, and research-led.
The programme supports three types of research action. While ADVENTURE supports research projects in emerging areas of knowledge and INSIGHT focuses on projects assessing new discoveries and phenomena which may pose risks to society, PATHFINDER funds larger scale actions in emerging areas of science identified as having particular promise or urgency.
The first projects under PATHFINDER have now been selected from a good crop of proposals, and address a broad range of areas. The call requested proposals under three headings: 'Tackling complexity in science', 'Synthetic biology' and 'What it means to be human'.
The objectives of the call were generally understood, according to Mr Cannell, although 'synthetic biology' is such a new area that the research community has not yet organised itself around the topic.
Projects selected under the first PATHFINDER call include STARFLAG - an attempt to predict human behaviour by studying the flocking behaviour of starlings in flight using rapid photography (under 'tackling complexity'). The FAR project (in 'what it means to be human') will investigate when and how humans developed the ability to use language to communicate, logic and mathematics to reason, and to abstract relations that go beyond perceptual similarity. The EUROBIOSYN project ('synthetic biology'), meanwhile, will target the construction of a modular platform for the synthesis of complex saccharide structures that are increasingly important in the development of modern therapeutics.
The selection of PATHFINDER topics is a bottom-up process. Researchers are invited to submit their ideas to the 'NEST ideas box' (reference below), while the Commission scans literature and the results of foresight activities. Input is also received from scientific experts and those working in the thematic priority areas of FP6. The Commission is particularly on the look out for areas where interdisciplinary developments are taking place.
Mr Cannell and his unit learned a lot from the first call for proposals, particularly on the question of interdisciplinarity, he told CORDIS News. 'Interdisciplinarity depends heavily on the motivation of individuals and groups. We have also learned that we have to consider how we interact with trends. Our role shouldn't be to generate entirely new ideas. Those working in the fields are the ones with the ideas. We can nudge, but it must be clear that they are in charge.'
The next call for proposals, due to be published in December, will see a further call for projects under the 'synthetic biology' and 'what it means to be human' themes, as well as a new call for projects on 'measuring the impossible'.
'Our observation is that measuring quantities and the science of measurement are changing rapidly. There are different industrial demands and they need more complex, integrated methods,' explained Mr Cannell. A lot of public sector policy is also based on measuring, particularly in relation to the capacity of services. 'We are looking forward to the measurement environment in 20 years,' said Mr Cannell, which is expected to involve a strong component of interpretation and perception.
Communicating the themes of the NEST calls for proposals to the scientific community is a challenge, said Mr Cannell: 'The activity is potentially of interest to the whole of the scientific community [...] so we can't use the usual sectoral channels of communication.' The unit was, however, aware of this from the beginning of the programme and has developed a strategy for communicating with scientists.
The NEST website is regularly updated, and thus provides an extremely transparent way of monitoring the selection of topics, right through from the initial selection of ideas to recommendations by experts. National Contact Points (NCPs) also disseminate the latest information. For its part, the Commission last year organised a brokerage event in order to discuss ideas, and once topics had been finalised, representatives attended external conferences on the subjects in order to publicise the call for proposals. The transparency of the programme, as well as the feedback on ideas and proposals, has proved very popular with Europe's research community.
The 'successful experiment' that NEST has been means that there is a clear rationale for the inclusion of the programme in FP7, believes Mr Cannell. He warns, however, that 'FP7 will be a different animal from FP6.' While the rationale is there, the question of how NEST could fit in with the other aspects of FP7, including the thematic priorities and funding for basic research, has yet to be solved.
'We have had significant achievements in identifying topics and forging interdisciplinary research. We have a high level of user-friendliness for the type of research we want to do and we are proud of our transparency,' said Mr Cannell. 'It's a privilege to say to people: we want to take your ideas forward and here's the money to do it,' he concluded.
For further information on NEST, please visit:
To access the NEST ideas inbox, please visit: