30 Jan 2013   |   News

Two biggest research projects in EU history get €2B go-ahead

As the number one priority for ICT research, the 10-year FET Flagship projects in graphene and computer modelling of the brain announced this week are guaranteed €1B each - regardless of any cuts in the proposed €80B Horizon 2020 programme

The two winners of the biggest basic research grants in EU history – with €54 million for starters in 2013 alone - have been guaranteed the funding will be maintained over ten years regardless of any cuts to the EU’s overall R&D programme.

The Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagships on Graphene and the Human Brain will also be the most collaborative projects ever funded by the EU, with Graphene involving 126 academic and industrial groups in 17 countries, while the Human Brain Project is comprised of 87 organisations in 23 countries, of which 16 are in the EU.

The two Flagships will get €54 million from the European Commission’s ICT 2013 Work programme to get off the ground, with the majority of the remaining funding coming from Horizon 2020.

A Commission spokesman told Science|Business the contracts for the two FET Flagships cannot be signed until the overall budget for the EU from 2014 – 2020, the Multiannual Financial Framework is agreed – and with it the budget for Horizon 2020. However, the two FET Flagships are the number one priority for the whole of the ICT research programme (which is looking for €10 billion in Horizon 2020) and so will go ahead even if Horizon 2020 is scaled back from the €80 billion proposed by the Commission.

Driving up the level of science

The European Commission claims the 10-year duration and massive financial incentive it offered for the FET Flagships has delivered even before the projects have started in earnest, by driving the level of science in the proposals to a much higher level.

While their funding may be assured, the two FET projects highlight what is at stake if the proposed €80 billion Horizon 2020 budget is cut back. Announcing the winners on Monday, European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes said Graphene and the Human Brain Project are home-grown scientific breakthroughs showing that when it is ambitious, Europe is capable of the best research.

“To keep Europe competitive, to keep Europe as the home of scientific excellence, EU governments must agree an ambitious budget for the Horizon 2020 programme in the coming weeks,” Kroes said. She has previously likened the potential impact of the FET Flagships to the Apollo mission to the moon

Looking beyond computer science

Although they are to be funded as part of the ICT programme, to achieve their objectives – and deliver on Kroes’ vision of becoming two of the most important research projects in the world – the FET flagships will have to look well beyond computer science. They will need to link up with researchers in materials science, neuroscience, bioinformatics, robotics, pharmacology and medicine, amongst others.

The Human Brain Project, led by Henry Markram at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, covers disciplines including neuroscience, genetics, applied mathematics computer science, robotics and social sciences. The aim is to create a comprehensive computer model of the brain, as a tool for studying how the organ works and using this for diagnosis and to develop treatments for neurological and related diseases.

This in itself would be an important contribution to medical research, but the researchers also promise huge spin-offs for computer science. New techniques of interactive supercomputing that will be required to simulate how the brain functions will impact a range of industries. Meanwhile devices and systems modelled on the brain will overcome fundamental limits in the energy efficiency, reliability and programmability of the current generation of computer systems, opening up a route to develop computers with brain-like intelligence.

The thinnest material

The Graphene Flagship headed by Jari Kinaret, at Chalmers University in Sweden will investigate the unique properties of this carbon-based material and exploit its extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties. Graphene is the thinnest material, conducts electricity much better than copper, is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties.  Given this, graphene is the number one candidate to replace silicon in semiconductors, but also has the qualities to reach a much wider field of applications, becoming as important as steel or plastics in the long-term.

The high level of collaboration in the FET Flagships represents a serious attempt to overcome the fragmentation that typically prevents Europe from pulling its weight in basic research. For example, the EU has previously funded more than 50 graphene projects and there are also national graphene programmes. All these activities are independent of each other and are subcritical.

The two Flagships were selected following a competition that has run for 2.5 years. Twenty one proposals received in response to a call on 20 July 2010 were whittled down to six pilots by January 2011. These Flagship pilots began work on 1 May 2011, with Kroes launching them officially at the FET11 Conference in Budapest on 4 May 2011. Each of the six received around €1.5 million in funding over a year to hone their plans. Then in October 2012 the six finalists submitted their complete research proposals, including a roadmap and implementation plan for evaluation by a panel of 25 experts.

The Commission says the four other finalists, FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator and Crisis-Relief System; Guardian Angels for a Smarter Life; IT Future of Medicine; and Robot Companions for Citizens are eligible to apply for Horizon 2020 money but there will be no funding specifically reserved for them.

Negotiations with the two winners are now getting underway. Pending approval from the ICT Committee of Member and Associated States, contracts for the initial ramp-up phase, funded from the EU's 2013 budget, will be signed projects, allowing the projects to begin in September 2013.

The Commission has included FET Flagships as part of its proposal for Horizon 2020, but whether there will be any new Flagships will depend on the overall decision on the H2020 budget.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up