04 Jan 2018   |   Viewpoint

Learn from Horizon 2020 to address unmet medical need in Europe

Viewpoint: BioMed Alliance Director Ulrich Jaeger argues that EU funding is crucial in allowing medical researchers across member states to collaborate in the development of new treatments. In Framework Programme 9, processes must be optimised and the budget boosted - to deliver for patients and the economy

Professor Ulrich Jaeger is a member of the BioMed Alliance Board of Directors

Not another scientist asking for more money for research, I hear you say. While the reply is yes, my plea is based on views about Horizon 2020 of many of the major players in European biomedical research and their hopes for it successor, Framework Programme 9.

So I hope you will bear with me, and read on.

In 2015 the Alliance for BioMedical Research in Europe (BioMed Alliance), of which I am a director, conducted a survey of the experiences and attitudes of researchers belonging to its 27 member societies who had been both successful and unsuccessful in making Horizon 2020 grant applications. Based on their responses, we identified two areas where change is needed urgently.

The first concerns the two-stage selection process. While almost everyone approves of the principle, there is considerable frustration that so many applications get through the first round, only to be subsequently rejected at the second stage. 

According to the Commission, the overall success rate in Horizon 2020 to date is below 10 per cent. And over 8,500 more proposals were submitted in 2015 than in 2014.

As a result, some high level researchers are discouraged from applying, not only because the success rate is low, but also because the process is so complicated. Spending large amounts of time writing proposals for grants when you know the odds of success are so limited - not because of the quality of the research project, but because the process is unsatisfactory - is a waste of money as well as time.

The cost of writing up a H2020 proposal is estimated at around €85,000. With so many proposals getting through the first stage only to fall at the second, this represents a significant misuse of resources.

Given the high failure rate, our members are heavily in favour of a more meticulous evaluation process at stage one. They also want to see more rigorous selection of the reviewers who evaluate proposals and for there to be comprehensive feedback to unsuccessful applicants, so that they can improve their proposals.

The second area where our members would like to see change concerns the content of the calls. These should be broader in scope and place less weight on innovation, to give a better chance of success in winning grants for clinical research.

There is backing for the proposed creation of a European Council for Health Research to act a hub for health research innovation, implement the long term, sustainable research programmes needed to support the lengthy timelines involved in clinical development and patient access, and to capitalise on the benefits of cooperation and coordination across Europe.

Call for increased investment in FP9

How does this feed in to our hopes for FP9? The recent decision of the Council of Ministers to emphasise, “the necessity to prioritise research and innovation ….. including significant funds for the next Framework Programme,” rather than calling specifically for increased investment, is worrying.

MEPs have asked the Commission to allocate €120 billion - about €40 billion more than Horizon 2020 - to the next Framework Programme. Although this is promising, it begs the question of what will happen in the event of Brexit and the financial loss that will entail.

Unfortunately, research is viewed as an easy target for cuts because it is considered there will be less impact on the general public. While this may be true in the short term, we all know what happens longer term when funding for scientific investigation is reduced. In the longer term, it is patients who have to put up with the effects of any cuts, through reduced access to new treatments.

The ageing population means that today more than 100 million European citizens suffer from chronic diseases. At the same time, chronic diseases, including cancer and mental disorders, affect more than 14 per cent of Europe’s working population.

You do not need to be an economist to see the impact. Indeed, it has been estimated that more than seven per cent of GDP may be lost in some European countries through non-communicable disease alone – and that does not take into account the economic effect of family members who provide care being excluded from the workforce as a result.

The extent of unmet medical need in Europe has been well documented, most recently in the 2013 WHO report on priority medicines.  In the face of this, we need an improved, strengthened, and well-funded FP9 to support European clinical and health research.

Finding the resources may not be easy, and short termism has its attractions (particularly for politicians). But in the interests of all Europeans, we must be both consistent and persistent.

The BioMed Alliance will continue to argue that FP9 needs to be well-organised and well-funded in order to ensure that in the longer term, Europeans can have the best possible quality of life, and that the fruits of European research continue to contribute to the prosperity of us all.

Professor Ulrich Jaeger is a member of the BioMed Alliance Board of Directors

BioMed Alliance - the Alliance for Biomedical Research in Europe (www.biomedeurope.org)

The Alliance for Biomedical Research in Europe (BioMed Alliance) is a non-profit organisation representing 27 leading European research and medical societies, uniting more than 400,000 researchers and health professionals. The BioMed Alliance is committed to promoting excellence in European biomedical research and innovation, with the goal of improving the health and well-being of all European citizens.