Europe Makes Medicine Research Grants Conditional on Open Access

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas says all data generated under the $350 million Horizon 2020 projects will be open access. This supports the shift of greater cooperation in research and a new era of global and open science.

The European Union is offering $350 million in grants for developing personalized medicine next year-but with "open science" strings attached. Under its Horizon 2020 program, it has just announced calls for proposals in a dozen fields, ranging from general topics such as 'implementing the strategic research agenda on personalized medicine' and 'actions to bridge the divide in European health research and innovation' to specifics including diagnostic characterization of rare diseases or clinical research on regenerative medicine. Beneficiaries will be allowed to charge the cost of clinical trials and other expenses. The aim, says the EU, is not just to improve the lot of patients. It is also designed to "boost European industry and the so-called silver economy (which is what the EU politely calls industry related to old people) by investing in strategies for earlier and more effective prevention, diagnosis and treatments, and help Europe address the ageing population and chronic disease burden."

The funding may not be quite at the level of the US precision medicine initiative (although other medicine-related projects stand to benefit from the overall $9 billion the EU is allocating for research support in 2017), but the announcement displays a similar ambition to maximize cooperation across distinct fields in pursuit of better overall results. And significantly, for many of the projects, "in recognition of the opening of the US National Institutes of Health’s program to European researchers, any legal entity established in the United States of America is eligible to receive European Union funding to support its participation."

The shift towards greater cooperation in research is also reflected in a major change in the EU's approach to its support program. As Carlos Moedas, the EU's research commissioner, expressed it as he launched this latest round of funding, "21st century science will involve tens of thousands of scientists working collaboratively across the globe." In his view, "We are entering a new era of global and open science." And to reinforce the trend towards sharing, the EU is from now on making open data the default for all Horizon 2020 projects. "For all projects funded by these calls, we will expect the data generated to be open access," he said. In recognition of some of the challenges presented by this approach, he added that he is currently working on potential revisions to EU copyright law, so as to provide a research exception across all member states that will offer a predictable legal framework for text and data mining.

The research boss also wants to take sharing further and engage the population at large. At the launch ceremony for this round of funding, he recognized the merits of the Age of Enlightenment, when natural philosophers such as Benjamin Franklin, Goethe and Voltaire openly shared their thinking across borders-but they did it only within a charmed circle of their contemporaries. As science developed through subsequent centuries, Moedas said, "the public remained an audience to be instructed, rather than an active participant in the scientific debate."

According to Moedas, science can no longer be distant to the public, because it requires public support to succeed. Otherwise, he suggested, lack of public and political engagement in fact-based, decision-making could risk a public that identifies with populist rhetoric and decisions that are made based on fears and assumptions. Given the current heat surrounding the debate about personalized medicine and the regulatory evolution it implies (as demonstrated most recently by the BMJ criticism of adaptive pathways in mid-August), Moedas' argument has relevance for research into medicines, as much as for climate change, nanotechnology, data privacy or novel foods.