Science for Homo economicus and Homo faber is flourishing, while Science for Homo sapiens is diminishing. (Takashi Tachibana, 1998) Over the last two decades, the European Commission (EC) has become a major player in the European science landscape. Through its Framework Programmes (FPs) it has supported biological research, among other fields, generally according to top‐down priorities set in Brussels by the Commission. And as the economic and medical exploitation of biological research became more important, its nature changed, and so did the EC's funding strategy. While the early FPs provided some funding for the strengthening of basic research in Europe, the recent trend that started with the presently running FP5 promotes applied research almost exclusively. In the upcoming FP6, large European infrastructures and aggregated ‘Centres of Excellence’ will be given priority. As a result of these changes in strategy, some European biologists fear that basic science in Europe is endangered, particularly when it is carried out in small laboratories at universities.
The fact is that a strategy that prioritises large infrastructures might not meet the real demands of biological research in Europe. Apart from the legal and social constraints that are characteristic of European culture, the quality and quantity of basic science, something that has not been given funding priority for more than a decade, could become the limiting factor for the further development of biotechnology. There are already plenty of structures at regional and national levels to facilitate the industrial exploitation of biological knowledge. It is hard to imagine that anything more could be achieved in this respect. It is time to realise that European biotechnology industries might not need increased EC interventions. They usually have efficient support at national and regional levels—which often provides flexible links to national and sometimes international academic laboratories—and often requires less paperwork and provides sizeable funding more rapidly than EC grants.
Looking for excellence among European scientists.
As the economic and medical exploitation of biological research became more important its nature changed, and so did the EC's funding strategy
The draft of FP6 concentrates on the support of large transnational infrastructures as well as establishment of networks of ‘Centres of Excellence’. But this vision is hampered by a severe birth defect: it is difficult both to define excellence as well as manage large virtual centres. The most annoying fact, however, is that large infrastructures will not necessarily increase excellence. My experience from the Human Frontier Science Programme and numerous European projects has led me to conclude that the intensity of interaction generally decreases (with interesting exceptions) when the number of partners increases. It is true that biological sciences increasingly use large and sophisticated equipment (the European synchrotrons, for instance, have proven to be extremely useful). But many biological facilities could be decentralised, such as informatics, mouse clinics and even structural biology facilities. One should remember that it is difficult to disengage from large infrastructures, even if they become obsolete, and it is unfortunately easy to find European examples of such situations. It is a fact of life that inefficient infrastructures often claim that increased funding will make them more competitive. History shows that this is rarely true.
One should remember that it is difficult to disengage from large infrastructure, even if they become obsolete
I believe that, instead of, or in addition to, increasing the size and numbers of large infrastructures, European research needs more and better small university‐based laboratories dedicated to carrying out ‘avant‐garde’ basic science by their PhD students. In the long term, the quality of teaching, the overall level of science in Europe and the emergence of scientific vocations—now in alarming decline—depend on these small laboratories that today often suffer from limited funding. They are not promoted by organised lobbies and might not be labelled ‘Centres of Excellence’, but their overall creativity and social importance are unquestionable. I dispute the unproven concept that large infrastructures are more creative, per Euro invested, than small university‐based laboratories. It might even be detrimental to European biological science to increase the funding and the dominance of large centres at the expense of the promotion and improvement of small laboratories.
If we want to maintain and increase the competitiveness of biological research in Europe, and its exploitation in biotechnology, I would suggest that the EC modifies its funding strategy and provides more support for basic science, which is the very basis of applied research.
European research needs more and better small university‐based laboratories dedicated to carrying out ‘avant‐grade’ basic research
But, first of all, many of the bureaucratic hurdles that scientists have to climb when applying for research grants from the EC have to be simplified. This is crucial for the future of the EC's role in funding research. If the bureaucratic workload of scientists further increases with FP6, it will eventually reach a self‐destructive level. However, this important topic deserves an independent analysis of its own.
Overall, it would be fair to propose that half of the EC research budget is devoted to open‐ended basic research. ‘Bottom‐up’ proposals should have no other requirements attached than being of good quality and being multinational. Fair review and efficient administration procedures similar to those used by the Human Frontier Science Programme or the US National Institutes of Health might be adopted
It might detrimental to European biological sciences to increase the dominance of large centres at the expense of the promotion and improvement of small laboratories
Apart from this proposal, I would like to present five examples of directive measures that could contribute to maintaining and promoting ‘small’ basic science in Europe within the next FP, which will be in operation until 2007. There are, however, many other ways to achieve that objective and, like all scientists, I am inevitably biased by my own field of competence.
(i) More support could be given for international post‐doctoral fellowships with no requirements attached other than that they be awarded for training in laboratories with proven scientific output and accompanied by generous bench fees. This would be an efficient way to promote basic science. It must be acknowledged that the EC, through its Marie Curie Fellowships and other training initiatives, has a very good track record in this area.
(ii) The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) recently launched a grant scheme to help young scientists establish their own laboratories. These research grants do not set priorities for certain research topics, nor do they need to be justified in terms of potential applications. As this programme has been shown to attract applicants very successfully, it could easily be expanded to increase the number of grants. Such a scheme on a European level, with an appropriate budget, would be a very practical way to channel more funding into basic science. However, some thought should be given to the long‐term fate of the grantees and also to the danger of increasing the hegemony of leading countries and institutes that will inevitably provide the best justifications for hosting brilliant young scientists. It also remains to be seen whether EMBO is the best agency for fair and efficient channelling of such grants. Its members and its selection committee do not represent all areas of biology equally, which could result in an unwanted bias towards or against some fields.
(iii) A simple and rather inexpensive way to strengthen European biological research would be to invest in the sequencing and analysis of small genomes, as these have proven to be a major resource for the discovery of new knowledge. Although Europe, thanks to EC funding in the early 1990s, enjoyed a transient leadership, further funding for sequencing genomes has been halted during FP5. Moreover, there is no provision for genome sequencing in the draft of FP6, despite a budget of Ecu 2 billion for ‘functional genomics’ (whatever that means), largely restricted to the major multifactorial human diseases. There is a large deficit of public sequencing capacity in Europe. The Sanger Centre in the UK has a capacity of about 30 Mreads per year, (equivalent to ∼1.5 billion of non‐assembled nucleotides) Genoscope in France 3 Mreads per year and the sequencing facilities in Germany contribute another 3 Mreads per year. None of the other European countries have large sequencing facilities, and overall the European sequencing capacity is considerably less than in the US. The few European large‐scale facilities are nearly saturated by their work on human, mouse and other large genomes. To analyse small genomes, Europe is thus becoming more and more dependent on the US, which fortunately gives generous access to the sequence data generated there. However, it would be utopian to assume that, without sequencing new genomes, Europe will be able to master all facets of genomics and competitively exploit genome sequence data produced in the US. This situation is especially disabling for smaller countries. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that numerous European scientists are working on ‘bizarre’ species, such as lichens, non‐conventional fungi, Podospora, Paramecia, anaerobic ciliates, psychrophilic or piezophilic bacteria, Diatomeae, proctoctist arthropods, molluscs, algae, plants and insects, that are not obviously related to health and food. Some of these species are studied for sheer scientific curiosity with the only short‐term aim of understanding all levels of the biosphere. Others are considered as model systems for the investigation of biological mechanisms conserved in the human species, such as DNA recombination in Paramecium, ageing in Podospora, biogenesis of mitochondria in yeast, etc. The recent Nobel Prize for medicine/physiology awarded for pioneering work on the cell cycle carried out in yeast, is a good example of the usefulness of exploring model species. One of the most obvious advantages of sequencing such species will be the study of the mechanisms of biological evolution. But at present there are few ways to get the sequencing of genomes done quickly in Europe, which would provide the basis for creative science. What is lacking is money, not new infrastructure. A network of laboratories and companies specialised in sequencing small genomes could efficiently sequence and analyse genomes of specific interest to European scientists, while the three national centres could focus on larger and more complex genomes. In this regard, a budget of only Ecu 200 million for a total of 5 years would do much to improve the promotion of European basic science, as well as the promotion of small European ‘genomic’ companies.
If the bureaucratic workload of scientists further increases with FP6, it will eventually reach a self‐destructive level
(iv) Many small laboratories have no access to commercial facilities, such as human and mouse genome databases, DNA microarray experiments of large two‐hybrid screens or proteomic analysis, because they are too expensive. But the competitiveness of small laboratories often depends on access to such commercial tools. Therefore, the EC could help small laboratories to obtain cheap access to such commercial facilities in an efficient and fair way, without creating expensive and ever‐binding infrastructures.
(v) One of the present limitations of biological research seems to be access to protein structure facilities, for which Europe had a long tradition of leadership. Due to large new investments, the US has caught up in this field. Meanwhile, many small European laboratories have purified proteins of interest in hand without the means to determine their structure. The EC could help those small laboratories to analyse the structure of these proteins without indulging in blind funding to the presently dominant infrastructures that might be tempted to increase their size and comfort but not necessarily their efficiency.
For the very first time, basic scientists have attempted to interfere with their own fate as it is decided at the European level
A document with these and other arguments has been presented to members of the European Parliament by dozens of established scientists from all European countries. Jean‐Luc Souciet from Strasbourg and Claude Gaillardin from Grignon have personally explained it to Gerard Caudron (France) from the parliament and to several other members of the European Committee on Industry, External Trade Research and Energy that is in charge of approving and amending FP6. Most of the 118 members of this committee have been alerted by one or more scientists. Finally, two European parliamentarians, Michel Hansenne from Belgium and Dominique Vlasto from France, have agreed to deposit an amendment proposing increased funding for the sequencing and analysis of small genomes.
It would be interesting to see whether their opinion is reflected in Brussels. Many scientists have mailed additional arguments that were not presented above. It is doubtful that their letters have been taken into consideration or have even been read by any member of the European Parliament, and no short‐term impact is expected.
But these reactions from European scientists demonstrate the necessity for European society to find the right balance between two extreme trends described by Ladislav Kovác (2001): ‘With cultural sciences underrated and undervalued, there are two dominating cultures at the beginning of the 21st century, a culture of science that aspires to understanding of the world and a culture of technoscience that strives for intervention into the world, for manipulation with it and for its remodelling’. For the very first time, basic scientists, many of whom share the view that ‘small is beautiful’, have attempted to interfere with their own fate as it is decided at the European political level. This new type of lobbying might announce the start of a movement that will, in the future, drive EC funding towards increased support of ‘small’ but creative basic biological research.
This paper reflects only my personal views. I wish to thank the following scientists for their helpful and sometimes controversial comments about European science policy: Despina Alexandraki (Heraklion), Siv Andersson (Uppsala), Giorgio Bernardi (Paris), Jacques Botut (Castanel Tolosan), Anders Blomberg (Göteborg), Monique Bolotin (Orsay), Michael Breitenbach (Salzburg), Alistair Brown (Aberdeen), Carlo Bruschi (Trieste), Margarida Casal (Braga), Bernard Dujon (Paris), Karl Dieter Entian (Frankfurt), Laura Frontali (Rome), Francis Galibert (Rennes), Carlo Gancedo (Madrid), Claude Gaillardin (Grignon), Dana Gaskova (Prague), Stefan Hohmann (Göteborg), Goerg Hoheisel (Heidelberg), Jean Claude Jauniaux (Heidelberg), Michael Kokkinidis (Heraklion), Matti Korhola (Helsinki), Ladislav Kovac (Bratislavia), Ed Louis (Leicester), Giovanna Lucchini (Milan), Cesar Nombela (Madrid), Serge Pottier (Strasbourg), Claudina Rodrigues Pousada (Oeiras), Zdena Palkova (Prague), Michaël Rieger (Hirschhorn), Isabel Sá‐Correia (Lisbonne), Karel Sigler (Prague), Piotr Slonimski (Gif sur Yvette), Jean‐Luc Souciet (Strasbourg), Herve Tettelin (Rockville), Guido Volckaert (Leuven) and Hans Westerhoff (Amsterdam).
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization