Issue Date: January 2, 2012
Researchers in the U.S. and Europe have a long history of working together, but cooperative efforts could be greatly enhanced if scientific funding agencies on both sides of the Atlantic harmonized their policies and regulations.
That message was driven home by speakers at a conference last month hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The meeting, organized by the Polish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the EU Delegation to the U.S., several European embassies, and AAAS, brought together U.S. and EU government officials, academics, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations to discuss ways to strengthen trans-Atlantic collaboration in science, technology, and innovation.
“In the U.S., virtually every scientific funding agency has its own idiosyncratic array of policies, procedures, and reporting requirements,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS. As a result, American researchers spend around 40% of their research time on administrative tasks, he stressed. “There is an effort to try to harmonize those policies across agencies, but frankly it is going poorly at the moment,” he said.
In the EU, a similar situation exists. “Europe is heterogeneous. Different countries joined the EU with different higher education systems and different expectations,” said Maria E. Orłowska, secretary of state with the Polish Ministry of Science & Higher Education. “We need to find the common structures and instruments” to make it easier for individual member states to collaborate with each other and with countries outside the EU, she said.
Most researchers learn to navigate the various grant systems in their home country, but they often don’t have training in how to apply for foreign grants. In many cases, they don’t even know what other countries have to offer. That situation is particularly true for American scientists.
For example, James L. Olds, a neuroscientist at George Mason University, noted that his students graduate with benchtop skills and the ability to publish in excellent journals. They know how to apply for grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, but “they are completely fish out of water when they transfer, as they often do, to do more training across the Atlantic,” he stressed. Olds urged policymakers to stop dealing with global training in an ad hoc manner.
Sending scientists abroad—whether from the U.S. to Europe or from Europe to the U.S.—does more than just educate them about funding policies; it also serves as a foundation for cross-Atlantic interactions.
“Collaboration is built on trust and friendship,” pointed out Alice Dautry, president of Pasteur Institute in France. And for collaborations to work internationally, she said, it is best if partnering scientists spend time in each other’s country. European researchers typically spend much more time training abroad than Americans, she noted. “There is no other way [to ensure relationships work] than getting people together and sharing cultures,” she stressed.
The results of a recent survey of NIH grantees based in Europe suggest that spending time in the U.S. to make personal connections and build trust helps foreigners get NIH grants, said Tom Wang, director for international cooperation at AAAS. “The overwhelming majority of these researchers have had some residence time within the U.S. as well as previous collaborations,” Wang said.
Despite the administrative burdens and other obstacles, the number of NIH-supported projects in Europe that have both a domestic and foreign component rose from 1,038 in fiscal 2007 to 1,878 in fiscal 2011, pointed out George Herrfurth, multilateral program coordinator of NIH’s John E. Fogarty International Center.
During the same period, U.S. researchers were involved in 91 projects funded by the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), Herrfurth noted. FP7 is the EU’s primary government program for funding scientific research and development. The seven-year program will be replaced in January 2014 by a new program, called Horizon 2020.
The European Commission released a proposal for Horizon 2020 on Nov. 30, 2011, calling for a total of ¤80 billion ($105 billion) over six years for the program. The proposal aims to simplify the program’s architecture by creating a single set of rules, said Sigi Gruber, head of unit relations with third countries at the EC. There will be less red tape, she said, noting that this means “a single point of access for participants, less paperwork in preparing proposals, and fewer controls and audits.” Such simplifications are expected to make it easier for researchers to collaborate.
In the U.S., funding agencies are also considering how to make it easier for researchers to pool resources with their foreign colleagues. “Researchers want to collaborate. Our job as funding agencies is to figure out how to make that happen,” said Jennifer Slimowitz Pearl, a program manager in NSF’s Office of International Science & Engineering.
As a first step, NSF is planning a global summit on merit review for May 2012. The summit will bring together heads of research councils from about 50 research-intensive countries. “We hope that this will be a starting point of a global research council,” Pearl said.
One of the goals of NSF’s summit is to get directors of funding agencies to endorse basic principles of merit review, Pearl noted. NSF hopes worldwide input will shape the development of these principles, she said. Future meetings will consider other areas that affect the global research funding community, for example, intellectual property, access to data, and scientific misconduct, Pearl added.
As government officials address obstacles to collaboration, they are also identifying particular areas that would benefit from enhanced collaboration between the U.S. and the EU.
In November, U.S. and EU officials met in Brussels to discuss ways to work together to address societal challenges in the areas of energy, health, climate change, land use, water resources, and critical raw materials. They also agreed to join forces to develop key enabling technologies such as electric smart grids, information and communication technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, said Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs at the Department of State.
“The science and technology enterprises around the world are facing a series of challenges and opportunities that require a much more concerted effort working together than we’ve ever had before,” Leshner said. The U.S. and the EU have similar values and goals. Both want to spur innovation and economic growth, create jobs, and remain competitive in science and engineering.
The financial crisis facing the U.S. and many other countries provides an opportunity to take a “fundamental look at the way in which science is funded and science is structured within and across countries,” Leshner noted. “I believe that we should take advantage of the moment.”
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