This month the pan-European Joint Programme on Neurodegenerative Disease Research swung into action, launching a transnational call for research to develop and optimise biomarkers for diagnosing and monitoring the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.
The collaboration will see over €14 million made available to researchers from 20 countries. “National agencies are contributing funding towards high quality research to address barriers to progress not readily funded through standard national research grants,” said Philippe Amouyel, chair of the joint programme on Neurodegenerative Diseases.
After three years of preparing the ground, this first pilot will be the acid test of whether individual national funding bodies can work within their existing frameworks to deliver a coordinated pan-European research programme.
Next month the joint programme on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change gets off the ground, launching a call devoted to making food supplies sustainable in the face of climate change. Researchers across the EU will share data and methodologies as they probes issues such as how climate variability will affect regional farming systems in the near and far future?
“This thematic area will involve a detailed climate change risk assessment for European agriculture and food security,” said Isabelle Albouy, a member of the Joint Programming Initiative secretariat and Head of European Affairs at France’s Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, speaking last week at a seminar held to discuss the state of play in joint programming at the Netherlands House for Education and Research in Brussels.
Getting national R&D budgets to go further
Joint programming was initiated in 2008 to encourage member states to pool resources and cooperate more effectively in particular areas of research, with the goal of avoiding duplication and fragmentation and making national research budgets - which account for about 90 per cent of total R&D funding in Europe – stretch further.
As ever, getting member states to cooperate is not straightforward. EU countries have different cultures, different ways of working and different opinions on what works best, and overcoming these obstacles and fostering mutual trust and respect has taken a great deal of preparatory spade work.
A key step in the early life of joint programming is to map existing research efforts in a particular field, to establish what is already being done in individual nations, where the overlaps are, and what can be achieved by combining research efforts. Joint programming may involve collaboration between existing national research programmes or it could be setting up entirely new ones.
Countries that choose to get involved in a particular joint programme then define, develop and implement a common research agenda. At present, the joint programme on neurodegenerative diseases is the most advanced, with its research agenda due to be finalised by the middle of 2011.
Then comes the hard part, as member states to decide how to implement it. One scenario is that each member state is responsible for a part of the agenda, so its national budget is focussed on that particular sub-topic, leaving other member states to focus on other areas.
In parallel there will be special calls - as is the case with the call this month on, ‘Neurodegenerative Diseases - a call for European research projects for the optimisation of biomarkers and harmonisation of their use between clinical centres’ The call will be conducted simultaneously by the funding organisations in each of the countries taking part, with central coordination. This pilot call will help see the extent to which collaborative research projects can be carried out successfully.
Limited role for the Commission
The European Commission’s role in the process is relatively limited. It has provided preparatory grants of about €2 million to help get things started and enable the agendas to be developed. The Commission is also an observer on the boards of the joint programmes, but it does not have voting rights. Its advice is sought where useful, but the initiatives are driven by the member states, said Edvard Beem, co-director at the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development and the Netherlands’ national representative for the joint programme on neurodegenerative diseases.
Joint programming is likely to prove instructive, as the issue of EU cooperation to tackle common research problems moves even further up the agenda with the launch of European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs). These partnerships, the first of which is on Active and Healthy Ageing, are billed as a new approach to involving all member states in linking up the innovation chain to get products through to market faster. The details are still vague though, and it is not yet clear how they will work in practice.
There was a shot across the bows from the high level group overseeing joint programming in November last year when it warned that EIPs should avoid duplicating joint programming research. The theme of Active and Healthy Ageing is already being tackled by the joint programme in neurodegenerative diseases, another in Ambient Assisted Living and in a third, More Years, Better Lives, which is also looking at healthy ageing.
Making sense of existing instruments
Those working on setting up the EIP on Active and Healthy Ageing are, “Trying to make sense of all the existing instruments,” Giorgio Clarotti, policy officer for Joint Programming at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation told the seminar last week.
Clarotti pointed to a speech made on March 9 by Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn in which she said the EIPs were in no way intended to replace or diminish joint programming. "Rather, we need to capitalise on links and synergies which may, in some cases at least, exist between them,” Geoghegan-Quinn adding joint programming will have, “a very important role to play post-2014.”
In the Commission’s communication on the Innovation Union, it said EIPs will build upon existing tools and actions and, “where this makes sense (for example, for joint programming, lead markets, joint pre-commercial and commercial procurement schemes, regulatory screening), integrate them into a single coherent policy framework.”
The situation should become clearer by the end of 2011, which the Commission has referred to as the “test phase”. This month the steering group for the EIP on Active and Healthy Ageing held its first meeting, jointly chaired by European Commissioners Neelie Kroes, with responsibility for digital agenda and John Dalli who oversees health, and including Member States, regions, industry, health and social care professionals, elderly and patient organisations and representative of joint programmes. The steering group is charged with shaping the partnership, by setting priorities and identifying key actions and barriers.
Some idea of how joint programming will fit into the Common Strategic Framework - the EU’s research programme for 2014-2020 - is likely to be come before the end of the year.
The Commission’s consultation on its Green Paper on future EU research and innovation funding which closed last week posed questions including, “How should EU research and innovation funding best be used to pool Member States resources? How should Joint Programming Initiatives between groups of Member States be supported?”
The Commission is due to announce concrete proposals on June 10, a date when those involved in joint programming will be looking for some answers and to see whether more EU money will be coming their way.
Joint Programming was kicked off in 2008 with the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI) on Neurodegenerative Disease Research, which acted as a pilot programme. This was followed a year later by three more: Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change; Cultural Heritage and Global Change, a new Challenge for Europe; and Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life. Last year, a second wave of six programmes got off the ground: More Years, Better Lives; Anti-Microbial resistance; Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans; Water Challenges for a Changing World; Connecting Climate Knowledge for Europe; and Urban Europe.