Paying for the Research Pay-off

Slightly more than a thousand healthcare research projects were funded by the European Union between 2007 and 2013, at a cost of $6 billion, revealed Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, at the end of January.

Slightly more than a thousand healthcare research projects were funded by the European Union between 2007 and 2013, at a cost of $6 billion, revealed Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, at the end of January. The outcomes that he highlighted included new screening methodologies for diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, a genomic prognostic test to avoid unnecessary and expensive breast cancer treatments, more rapid identification of new therapeutic targets in areas of autism and schizophrenia, and a portable PET scan to measure body functions such as blood flow. It also gave birth to the innovative medicines initiative, the joint research venture between the EU and the European drug industry. And he claimed, citing an independent audit of the program that had channelled this money into research, that the funding had demonstrably increased scientific excellence and competitiveness – as well as "improving our citizen's welfare." 

Just as well. The EU doesn't invest in health research on the same scale as the United States, but its research programs nowadays represent a significant share of total EU spending–and at a time when austerity is biting hard across Europe, there is no automatic sympathy among hard-pressed taxpayers for pouring money into the pockets of white-coated scientists in comfortable laboratories and genteel research institutes. And obtaining public sympathy means persuading national ministers and members of the European Parliament that this is all a good thing.

So the EU authorities have been keeping up a constant flow of reminders of just how valuable these research programs are–not just in terms of scientific results, but in terms of what the funding can do for improving industry's capacity to innovate, and consequently boosting jobs and growth. The focus on results is a consequence of the priorities of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has stressed the need to make the EU deliver on efficiency ever since he took over at the helm a year ago.

The program examined in this latest review is the EU's 7th Framework Program, which spent $70 billion over its seven-year duration, on everything from hydrogen and fuel cells to aeronautics or climate change. Moedas claims that the investment is on track to trigger economic growth of $30 billion per year over 25 years, or $750 billion in total, and to create 130,000 research jobs per year over a period of 10 years and 160,000 additional jobs per year over a period of 25 years.

Horizon 2020, the successor EU research and innovation funding program that kicked off in 2014–and the context in which the innovative medicines initiative has been expanded–is being adjusted in light of the audit, to "make it simpler, more effective and more focused on finding innovative solutions to benefit our society and economy," said the Commissioner. This runs from 2014 to 2020, and will make available nearly $100 billion in funding for research and innovation. Moedas claims it is " already giving money back.”

That's not all. More EU investment should be devoted to research, development and innovation, Moedas said as he announced the results of the audit. So far, the EU's European Investment Bank has given $325 million to four research projects since last year under another Juncker initiative, and this is expected to generate additional private sector funding of $2.5 billion. It's not enough, says Moedas: “Am I satisfied? Not yet, I think that we can do much better.” His aim is to convince national governments to put more money into research

In a busy month for EU research, the European Research Council awarded $30 million in top-up grants for promising projects, to assist with proof of concept, thus helping researchers bridge the divide between academia and the market through establishing intellectual property rights, or looking for business opportunities. Projects that benefited include customized cancer treatments based on DNA information, and new treatment for chronic wounds based on medical inhalants. And Moedas has set up a new European Innovation Council and a new scientific advisory mechanism, with which a team of seven science provide advice to the European Commission.

As the European Union is increasingly buffeted–more every day, it seems at present–by new tensions over migration, internal borders, foreign policy, secession, or data protection, new importance is being given by the European Commission to keeping the motor of European research running smoothly. It is, perhaps, one area where it sees a strong argument for cooperation rather than dissension. It is a background against which pharmaceutical research may be able to find additional opportunities in a shay Europe.