European science can be the best (again)

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Europe’s new research élite

The European Research Council has been supporting science for the past decade. Eight success stories
show how the continent’s best and brightest are shaping tomorrow’s world.

Research and risk-taking have gone hand-in-hand in Europe since 2007. The European Research Council (ERC) supports scientists for a period of up to five years through three different types of grants that award up to €2.5 million per project. In addition, a €150,000 subsidy is available to explore the commercial potential of a scientific finding (Proof of concept). The grants are funded through the EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation (the current one is known as Horizon 2020). Unlike the majority of funding schemes awarded by the Framework Programmes, these grants are not bound by any thematic priorities. ERC Vice President Eva Kondorosi explains: “For the first time ever there is real competition in Europe among the research talent, which has generally raised the quality of research.” The numbers tell the story: since the ERC’s founding, 7,000 research projects have been funded. According to the first assessment carried out in 2015, more than 70% of these projects have produced significant results. Six ERC-supported scientists have won Nobel Prizes, and a further three Fields Medals. The fact that the ERC has no thematic priorities gives Europe a long-term competitive advantage over the US, argues Daniel Cremers, professor of Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition at the Technical University of Munich. “Whereas one out of four PhD students in my group is working on deep learning, it is generally four out of four for my US colleagues,” he says. “Over there, research applications for less ’hot’ topics are frequently turned down. In my opinion, this extreme concentration is leading to a loss of diversity and methodological approach.

” The ERC’s system does have one weak point: it favours the traditional science nations. Over 90% of the grants go to researchers from the older EU members, with eastern European countries generally coming away empty-handed. One way of letting these countries benefit from this funding is through networking. “We have set up Fellowship Programmes in which ERC candidates can undertake short research visits with current grant-holders,” says Kondorosi. She acknowledges, however, that this does not go far enough. “It is up to national governments to invest in basic research and infrastructure. Subsidies from Europe can only play a supporting role.” The ERC’s annual budget now stands at €1.6 billion. The following stories show how these grants support ground-breaking research.

The chip revolution

Every transmitted signal is subject to interference. To ensure that the recipient actually receives the correct information, redundancy is built into the transmission. So, as with balanced signal transmission, parallel-running cables are used to split interference signals between both conductors. With digital data transmission, error correction codes are added. Hoping to improve these codes, mathematician Amin Shokrollahi from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, launched an ambitious research project in 2009. He and his team have built an efficient model for balanced signal transmission. Using a special code, for example, it is possible to split eight bits among eight signal conductors (instead of 16), but with the same robustness.

These results laid the foundation for the Kandou Bus start-up in 2011. “The name means ’beehive’ in Persian and reflects the technology we use,” Shokrollahi explains. “The hive’s yield depends on how the bees collaborate inside. In our case, it’s the interaction between the signals that determines the quality of the output.” This technology allows for quicker data transmission between chips and uses less energy. With the amount of data exchanged worldwide doubling every 18 months, this young company has huge potential. “In the future no smartphone, tablet or computer will be able to do without us”, he predicts. Last year Kandou Bus received $15 million from a US venture capital company. In the meantime, the start-up has opened offices in the US, UK and Germany, in addition to its headquarters in Lausanne.

► 2008: Advanced Grant / 2011: Proof of Concept

Trojan Horse against cancer

In Europe, one person dies of cancer every 30 seconds. One of the main reasons is that only 1% or 2% of the anti-cancer agents administered through chemotherapy actually reach cancer cells; the rest go to other organs, creating often unpleasant side-effects. Magdalena Król of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences hopes to use her research to make drugs more effective. “I’ve discovered a mechanism by which immune cells can convey special proteins,” she explains. “These proteins have a box-like structure which can be filled with anti-cancer drugs. Just like a Trojan Horse, the immune cells work their way along to the tumour and empty out the active substances which kill the cancer cells.”

Król’s trials show that up to 30% of the immune cells reach the tumour. Thus, a smaller amount of anti-cancer agents can achieve greater success, reducing the side effects. Król is the first researcher at her university to have been awarded an ERC grant.

2016: Starting Grant

DVD Diagnosis

The Zika virus may no longer be headline news, but that does not mean it has disappeared. The US still sees over 100 cases a year. Early detection of an infection is therefore of great interest to national health authorities. With financial support from the US Agency for International Development, Danish start-up BluSense Diagnostics has developed a device that can deliver a diagnosis from a single drop of blood in just nine minutes. The sample is mixed with magnetic nanoparticles and inserted into the device. A rotating disc spins the sample, which is then analysed by a laser, similar to those used in DVD and Blu-ray players. This technology was made possible in 2013 by the basic research carried out by Anja Boisen, professor of Micro- and Nanotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark. In her work, she demonstrated the potential of using nanomechanical sensors in conjunction with DVD technology. This technology not only allows Zika to be diagnosed more easily and quickly, but also other illnesses such as diabetes and liver disease. As the device is portable and light, general practitioners can make diagnoses that would normally require laboratory tests. Patients suffering from chronic ailments can have their analyses done at home

2012: Advanced Grant

► 2013: Proof of Concept

The next computer generation

Filtering CO2 directly from the air, producing new drugs and high-tech materials, transmitting energy without loss – these are just a few of the potential uses of quantum computers. Such computers are currently at a rudimentary stage of development although they have huge potential. Quantum computers make use of quantum bits (qubits). The difference between a qubit and the currently used bit is that while a bit has just two states (0 or 1), a qubit can adopt several different states thanks to the laws of quantum mechanics. This means that, in just a few seconds, quantum computers can do calculations that would take conventional computers years. This could not only revolutionise work involving large amounts of data, but their quantum mechanical properties could also be used to simplify the simulation of molecules, a field in which even today’s supercomputers deliver unreliable results.

There are currently several ways of generating qubits. One of the most promising has been devised by Jeremy O’Brien, Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics at the University of Bristol. He and his team were the first to develop a silicon chip on which two identical light particles (photons) move around. The next stage is to increase the number of photons and use bigger circuits. O’Brien believes that within the next 10 years, this technology will allow quantum computers to process calculations that are way beyond the capabilities of conventional computers

► 2009: Starting Grant

► 2011: Proof of Concept

► 2014: Consolidator Grant

Machines that see

Without the ability to see, self-driving cars and robots will not be able to work together with humans. A machine’s autonomy depends on its ability to produce a semantic understanding of a particular situation, ideally in real time. The mathematical foundation for this is provided by Daniel Cremers, professor of Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition at the Technical University of Munich. His research examines how computers convert visual impressions into 3D images and then analyse them. The result is a series of highly complex algorithms. “In addition to autonomous vehicles, these applications have enormous potential for use in medicine, and it is conceivable that computers could identify illnesses or tumours from X-ray or ultrasound images,” he explains. Cremers’s research is also useful for drones that are used to search for survivors in the aftermath of a natural disaster. “Seeing drones with a certain degree of autonomy may well be available within the next five years in much the same way as self-driving cars are, to a limited extent, available today. Autonomous drones are easier to program than autonomous vehicles, as air traffic is not yet as complex as road traffic.” Last year, Cremers was awarded the Leibniz Prize, Germany’s highest science award.

► 2009: Starting Grant
2014: Proof of Concept
► 2015: Consolidator Grant

The world’s smallest machines

All he wanted to do was find molecules that could be used to build smaller computer chips. But instead, Bernard Feringa, professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Groningen, discovered a molecule that could rotate 180° under the influence of light. In 1999, he and his team were the first to build a mini rotor-blade that can be driven by light and heat. The technical details are impressive: the rotor-blade is 1,000 times smaller than a human hair, but can turn 12 million times per second and spin a glass cylinder.

For his research, Feringa was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (jointly with the researchers Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Sir Fraser Stoddart). Based on this research, new types of batteries and light-sensitive sensors may well be built in the future. Feringa is currently focusing on medical applications. An example is the light-driven nanoswitch, which can be used to activate and deactivate an antibiotic. The drug would thus work only where it is needed and would not damage any beneficial bacteria in the body. The challenge here is to use not UV-light (which has traditionally been used but is harmful to the body) but infrared light.

2008, 2015: Advanced Grant

Ruler of the wave

In the region between microwaves and infrared waves is the realm of terahertz radiation. These waves can pass through fabric, cardboard, wood and many types of plastic. They are biologically harmless as they do not alter the chemical structure of the material through which they pass. They have many potential uses. In addition to their controversial use in airport security checks, other applications include data transmission, early cancer diagnosis and energy technologies. There is just one problem: terahertz waves are very difficult to detect, which has hampered research in this field for quite some time.

Jaime Gómez Rivas, professor of Nanophotonics at Eindhoven University of Technology, is closing in on these waves in his research. “My first step was to learn more about how terahertz radiation reacts with metals,” he explains. He was able to show how terahertz waves can be channelled by using their resonance with a gold surface. Based on these observations, he developed a measuring device which makes the radiation visible at very high resolution. The beam’s intensity is measured near the metal. A major German company is interested in this concept and hopes to market it.

2009: Starting Grant 2015: Proof of Concept

Nanomaterials from a 3D printer

Valeria Nicolosi, at Trinity College Dublin, is researching so-called two-dimensional nanomaterials. This is the term used to describe materials that are as thick as an atom. Over 500 exist (of which the best known is graphene) and all have extremely valuable properties, such as high robustness or exceptional conductivity. With her 3D2D-Print research project, Nicolosi hopes to develop a new type of battery which can not only charge in a few minutes, but can also be integrated directly into another material. The possibilities include smartphone covers and batteries that could be inserted into the body and used to control a pacemaker. This is possible due to 3D printing technology, where several two-dimensional nanomaterials are mixed to produce the desired properties.

Nicolosi is a pioneer in her field. With the aid of an electron microscope, she was the first to show the individual atoms of two-dimensional nanomaterials. It is also thanks to her work that graphene can be produced cheaply in large quantities. She has already received five ERC grants for her work, more than any other scientist in Ireland.

2011: Starting Grant

2013, 2015, 2016: Proof of Concept

2016: Consolidator Grant

Article by Robert Gloy 

Brexit: the uncertainty

Britain’s decision to leave the EU casts a shadow over the future of research. 

The UK boasts eight of the top 10 universities in Europe, four of which are in the top 10 worldwide. And despite having just 0.9% of the global population, it ranks fourth among the world’s top research-producing countries. Little wonder that the UK’s decision to leave the EU raises major questions about the future of European research. With negotiations just beginning, Technologist looks at the possible consequences of Britain’s decision.

Money, money, money

Europe’s next research and innovation funding programme – referred to as Framework Programme 9 or FP9 – is expected to have a budget of up to €100 billion. The UK has been the second largest contributor to the previous eight Framework Programmes and other European research, so a “hard Brexit” – precluding British involvement in the scheme altogether – could hit that budget hard.

While the UK has paid a lot into EU research, it has also received a lot. In FP7 it received the second largest share of research funds: €8.8 billion, vs. €7.4 billion for France. Explains EuroScience policy adviser Luc van Dyck: “Brexit would mean more money for the other countries that traditionally perform well in Framework Programmes.”

At this point, of course, no one knows if Brexit will be hard or soft. If the UK strikes a deal similar to those brokered by Norway and Switzerland, it will almost certainly become a net contributor to the research budget.

Losing an ally

While finances are important to FP9, the programme’s planning and design will shape European research for the next decade, impacting jobs, growth and societal challenges. In France, Germany and many other European countries, large research institutions dominate the discussion, whereas in countries like the UK and Sweden universities wield more influence. For countries with research ecosystems similar to the UK’s, Brexit could mean a weakened voice. “Before, we could rely on the UK to drive the negotiations in our direction in areas such as health and aeronautics,” says Dan Andrée, special advisor to Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Research. “Without the UK, we lose our closest ally in the negotiations.”

A recent House of Commons select committee concluded that the UK should prioritise continued access to EU research funding. So, before Brexit occurs, British stakeholders are aiming to shape FP9 while they still can. “The UK still has a lot of influence over the design of FP9, and it is using it,” says Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “I would not underestimate the UK contributions to the next Framework Programme, or the extent to which UK stakeholders are being listened to.”

Restrict mobility, restrict innovation

Where the picture begins to look bleak is in possible limits on mobility. “Research depends on collaboration, and any reduction has to have a negative impact on research quality,” says Palmowski. Uncertainty over mobility is a key reason most UK-based European scientists – who represent 16% of the research workforce – are considering leaving the UK, with some already moving back to EU universities and scientific institutions.

This could of course be positive for the remaining 27 members. “The UK has managed to attract the brains of Europe, but these people will turn to other countries and quality research will be done elsewhere,” warns van Dyck. “The real losers of Brexit could be the UK’s universities.”

Article by Benjamin Skuse 

The quest for quotes

China and the US are the countries in which researchers publish the most papers. But in terms of impact Europe prevails.

When it comes to international comparisons of success in research, two figures stand out: the total number of papers published and the frequency with which these papers are cited. Frequency is commonly accepted as the best measure of impact. The following data relate to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) during the period 1996–2016.*

Article by Julien Calligaro @juliencal   

“Encouraging impact thinking”

An expert in technological change discusses the EU’s research programme and identifies the next challenges for innovation in Europe. 

Horizon 2020 is the EU’s most ambitious research and innovation framework programme ever (and also the biggest multinational research programme in the world), with an overall budget of €80 billion over seven years.

Christopher Tucci, professor of management of technology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and member of the European Commission’s expert group RISE (Research, Innovation and Science Policy Experts), discusses how to promote European research at all levels.


TECHNOLOGIST What has been the positive impact of Horizon 2020 so far?

CHRISTOPHER TUCCI It is a continuation in the direction of building networks in Europe, and from that point of view it has been highly successful. It has helped business and universities build a big, dense social network. For example, being able to include more small- and medium-sized enterprises – which might not be so well-connected when looking for funding to support their research and apply it – has been very positive.

TECHNOLOGIST Where does the programme fall short?

CHRISTOPHER TUCCI I think it’s a victim of its own success, in the sense that the competition for grants is enormous, and even when the reviewers like the proposals these are not always funded.

TECHNOLOGIST What should change in the future?

CHRISTOPHER TUCCI The grants are not intended to cover growth entrepreneurship, as opposed to lifestyle-type businesses, or to bring scalable businesses to the market. This is fine, but then one opportunity here is to expand the financing to help some growth-type businesses access the market. If one could think of an analogy to the European Research Council grants on the side of commercialisation and entrepreneurship, that would be really exciting.

TECHNOLOGIST What else should the EU and its member states do to promote European research?

CHRISTOPHER TUCCI Some changes could be helpful for the dissemination of research. Open science and open data are areas where national governments could play a role. Another aspect is given by the variations – in universities across and within countries – that characterise how institutions treat the entrepreneurship side of research carried out by their professors, postdocs and students. Right now academics are mostly evaluated on bibliometrics; if we could encourage more “impact thinking” – where impact can be academic, commercial or societal – that would go a long way in improving the overall impact of research on society.

Article by Gaia Donati

Is big business gobbling up public funds?

A quarter of European research money goes to companies. As the EU drafts the next iteration of its Horizon 2020 programme, experts discuss the pros and cons.

The sum was staggering by any measure: €80 billion over seven years. With that money, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme was tasked with channelling investment towards technologies deemed essential to the continent’s competitiveness, with a view to promoting scientific excellence. At its halfway mark, what does the programme have to show for itself? Over the past three years, more than a quarter of its outlays have wound up in the pockets of businesses. But are companies in the best position to convert research and innovation into concrete solutions, or should the allocation of European funds be re-assessed?

For Jan van den Biesen, formerly of Philips and current director of Dutch consulting firm Europolaris, the EU should not only continue funding major corporations, but double down on its commitments. He believes large companies are essential for translating progress in research into progress in the real world. “From 2014 to 2016, businesses received slightly more than a quarter of European funding,” he says. “If we look only at major corporations, that figure drops to just below 12%. Meanwhile, the private sector accounted for about a half of European R&D from 2014 to 2015.” According to Van den Biesen, the EU simply cannot ignore the key role that major corporations play: “They are central actors in emerging innovation ecosystems, and they bring many smaller companies along for the ride.” It follows, argues Van de Biesen, that big business is the only stakeholder equipped with the expertise and critical mass necessary to ensure new goods and services are monetised, standardised and adopted.

But doesn’t conferring such handsome sums on major corporations put European research at a disadvantage, by potentially prioritising private interests over the public good? Not if you ask Philips Lighting, global leader in its sector. The company is involved in a number of research projects jointly funded by various European entities. “European funds contribute significantly to our investments in R&D. Some of our programmes would never have seen the light of day had it not been for this European cooperation,” says Paul Merkus, portfolio manager of Research at Philips Lighting. Still, it is worth noting that big businesses themselves shoulder part of the projects’ costs. “Some projects might be 70%–100% funded by Horizon 2020, but those funds cover only direct costs,” says Merkus. “The other indirect costs, like housing or general equipment, are paid by the industry partners themselves.”

Virtuous circle

In addition, this collaborative effort has built-in accountability measures. “The grant agreement includes a document, approved by the project’s European leadership, that meticulously lays out expected deliverables,” Merkus adds. Beyond that, technical and financial reports facilitate the periodic evaluation of European funds’ appropriation. “Once a year, evaluation results are presented to the relevant EU authority, which is joined by two independent experts. Finally, Philips Lighting circulates its research results at conferences and publishes them in trade journals in order to chart a path for the lighting industry and keep it informed.” This helps Europe stay relevant in the global economy. “Without the EU acting as a driving force, Europe and its industries would have a significant setback against Asia and the US, both of which enjoy larger domestic markets and better coordination,” says Merkus.

For Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation, however, the equation is reversed. The foundation partially or fully owns more than 80 private companies, including the pharmaceutical lab Novo Nordisk A/S. It is the largest Danish private contributor to research, having funnelled €546 million last year into universities and public hospitals. This funding went primarily to medical and biotech research, i.e. treatment of diabetes, cancer and infectious diseases. Return on investment does not even figure in the company’s calculus, because results of the research it funds remain the property of the researchers and their institutions. Should the foundation not reinvest in its companies instead? “We conduct regular analyses to evaluate the overall societal impact of our grants,” says foundation spokesperson Christian Mostrup Scheel. “In 2016, one of these analyses led us to conclude that, at the societal level, investing in public research has a positive socio-economic impact and creates jobs.”

Staying in the race

The Technical University of Denmark (DTU) advocates a complementary approach. According to DTU Vice President Katrine Krogh Andersen, “European funds account for 12%–13% of our external research funding. These funds allow us to encourage our researchers’ mobility, beyond just covering the cost of the work itself.” DTU and others believe that European support is essential; it facilitates, among other things, post-doctoral exchange programmes, international training networks, and individual grants/scholarships for young researchers. And yet this viewpoint does not translate into cutting European funding for the private sector, as one might expect. On the contrary. “The importance of public-private cooperation is enhanced when you consider that European industry is trailing its main competitors in terms of R&D investment,” says Andersen. “It is probably wise, though, to distinguish between major, well-established corporations and SMEs.”

Van den Biesen remains unconvinced; for him, big business is in no danger of cannibalising European funds. “Today about 11% of proposals for European funding are approved. The major corporations receive under 12% of total allocations, so even if you were to completely wipe out their funding, it would only nudge that average approval rate up by not even 2%. That potential gain is negligible, and even more so in view of its possible collateral damage. Businesses might be less inclined to cooperate on projects launched under the future framework programme; this would come at the expense of its economic and societal impact.”

For many researchers these questions are secondary considerations, according to Matthias Reiter-Pásmándy, an expert at the Austrian Ministry of Research. In a recent study with Austrian institute Era Portal, he voices recurring concerns in the human and social sciences. Many in these fields consider European research to be very industry-oriented as it is, and they fear that the coming FP9 could relegate social, economic, geopolitical or cultural research projects to the back burner.

Article by Jean-Christophe Piot

The EU should focus on new ideas

An academic leader calls for a more bottom-up approach to financial support. 

Should the public sector fund corporate research? Yes, says Thomas Hofmann, senior vice president of the Technical University of Munich, but with one caveat: European funds must go towards the most innovative ideas.

TECHNOLOGIST How do you assess the Horizon 2020 program?

THOMAS HOFMANN You have to consider that the European Framework Program is unique in the world. No one else has developed an equivalent system to support research. But, in my opinion, the structure of the future funding program should be simplified and the evaluation system improved. A research program can only be as good as its evaluation procedure. I also think we need to make sure Europe’s excellent research leads to excellent innovation and concentrate on fundamentally new ideas. This can be achieved only if the overall research and innovation budget in Europe is secured at least at its present level.

TECHNOLOGIST What is your position on the collaboration between universities and private companies?

THOMAS HOFMANN TUM has a close, symbiotic relationship with its industry partners. We also see ourselves as an entrepreneurial university. This means that we encourage our researchers to start their own businesses based on research that the EU funds in the long term. That way, we leverage European funding to maximise its impact, making it sustainable over time. For Horizon 2020 and its successor programme (FP9) to be as effective as possible, the EU should focus on funding entirely new ideas, rather than tweaks to existing technology. That would go a long way to bringing small businesses and start-ups into the fold.

TECHNOLOGIST What do you hope to see from FP9?

THOMAS HOFMANN The European Commission’s foresight report charts two possible courses for the EU – one optimistic and one less so. The optimistic path leads to a peaceful, sustainable and economically stable future. Research and innovation are paramount to achieving that vision; we can get there, but only if we let researchers lead the way and allow more room for risk-taking.

TECHNOLOGIST How can this be successful?

THOMAS HOFMANN The current programme already offers a bottom-up approach, mainly in the ERC and Marie-Skłodowska Curie funding schemes. These are by far the most popular instruments for researchers because they respond to their most essential needs: the freedom to develop excellent scientific ideas to tackle the most pressing problems of the early 21st century. This should go hand-in-hand with a more mission-driven approach, advocating unlimited access of scientific solutions to current problems.

European science and identifies the next challenges for innovation in Europe.


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