Brussels, 01 Mar 2006
A report prepared at the request of the European Parliament's scientific technology options assessment (STOA) unit has called for concrete steps to be taken to improve the efficiency of publicly funded research.
The report, prepared by Walter Gränzer from the Technical University of Munich in Germany, aims to provide the Parliament with practical solutions for raising efficiency in experimental research, the operation of research infrastructure and technical research processes.
Dr Gränzer believes that in many ways, research facilities function in a similar way to commercial enterprises, and that individual research processes are comparable with value-creation steps in the commercial economy. However, 'certain research processes and the deployed infrastructure contain significant potential for efficiency optimisation,' argues the report.
Using biotechnology research as an example, the report goes on to suggest several efficiency boosting approaches. First, it points to a US-developed database research tool that is used over 50 million times per month, and calls for a similar tool to be established in Europe. The 'Scientific Methods Server' (SMS) would make biotechnology research methodologies freely available online, and lead to significant reductions in the time required to identify and optimise a scientific method for research. 'The SMS provides online the research methods of a specialist area, such as biotechnology, in such a way that a fellow research scientist from the same academic field can use it with ease,' explains the report.
Secondly, the report states that there are many research processes that would benefit from automation and the introduction of standard operating procedures (SOP). 'In protein chemistry alone there are, for example, recurring basic processes such as protein removal, protein extraction, protein concentration, protein digestion and protein capture,' it states. While automation will obviously present a structural and intellectual challenge, Dr Gränzer argues that it would ultimately reduce the time and cost of research, and raise the quality and reproducibility of results.
In the field of biotechnology, the report concludes that the implementation of SMS and automation alone would lead to time savings of 25 per cent. However, it goes on to propose a list of 20 further 'efficiency tools' designed to 'adapt the research infrastructure in the European research field to the requirements of the 21st century'.
The report urges Parliament to implement three further measures in addition to the tools outlined in the main body of the report: the creation of a printed or online forum for research efficiency, the establishment of an expert group for the appraisal of efficiency in publicly funded research, and the creation of a 'European innovation scouting agency' to look for promising innovations and encourage their commercial application.
'Europe needs to develop new methods to raise the performance of research,' concludes the report. '[I]t should not be expected that [...] the free play of markets will solve the problem. The competitiveness that Europe requires must be worked hard for. It is dangerous to wait for solutions to appear of their own accord.'