Issue Date: February 4, 2013
Big Money For Big Science
U.S. scientists whose research funds are in limbo every time Congress is late in passing a budget may want to move to Europe, especially if their areas of research are the human brain or graphene. Last week, the European Commission selected two Europe-wide initiatives—“Graphene” and “The Human Brain Project” (HBP)—that will each receive sustained funding of around 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) disbursed over a period of 10 years.
For comparison, the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to produce the first atomic bomb, cost a total of $2 billion ($23.5 billion in 2012 dollars) from inception to completion (1939–46). Building the Large Hadron Collider, near Geneva, cost $4.75 billion over a decade (1998–2008). Last summer, the particle accelerator verified the elusive subatomic particle responsible for mass, aka the Higgs boson. Clearly the European awards last week are on the scale of big science.
Since their discovery, the single-atom-thick planar sheets of sp2-bonded carbons called graphene have captured the imagination of researchers worldwide. The material is the thinnest imaginable, C&EN’s Mitch Jacoby noted in a story about the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics (C&EN, Oct. 11, 2010, page 8). The award went to Andre K. Geim and Konstantin S. Novoselov, both of the University of Manchester, in England, for their discovery of the material. Graphene is “exceptionally strong and stiff yet stretchable, exhibits outstanding thermal and electronic properties, and is chemically inert,” according to Jacoby. “As a result … graphene has quickly become a top choice for advanced computing applications, digital displays and various types of flexible electronics, and advanced composite materials.”
Now, the two Nobel Laureates join “Graphene,” one of the European Commission’s two Future & Emerging Technologies flagship projects. The team consists of 126 groups in 17 European countries and is coordinated by Jari Kinaret, a physics professor at Chalmers University, in Gothenburg, Sweden. It aims to develop graphene-based breakthrough technologies for communication, transport, energy, and sensing. Graphene “will revolutionize multiple industries and create economic growth and new jobs,” the European Commission says.
HBP, the second flagship, marries neuroscience and computing technology. It aims to re-create the human brain in a supercomputer and bring to the model all that is known about the most complex of human organs in hopes of learning its relation to the mind. The project will develop informatics, simulation, and supercomputing capabilities to collect data from all over the world and integrate the data in brain models and simulations. “The ultimate goal is to allow neuroscientists to connect the dots from genes, molecules, and cells to human cognition and behavior,” HBP says.
The HBP group consists of 80 research institutions, including some in North America and Japan. It will be coordinated by Henry Markram, a neuroscience professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne. By incorporating clinical data in computer models of the brain, the team will study the mechanisms of brain diseases and hopes to find ways to diagnose and then cure brain diseases. The team also aims to make new robots and computing systems based on the brain’s circuitry, HBP says. “The new systems will use detailed knowledge of the brain to address critical problems facing future computing technology: energy efficiency, reliability, and the huge difficulties in programming very complex systems.”
In the U.S., meanwhile, researchers dependent on federal grants are still uncertain about their 2013 funding because Congress has not passed the fiscal 2013 budget. U.S. scientists have long clamored for multiyear funding of research such as the kind the European Commission awarded last week to the flagship projects. Recently, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology added to the call for more stable funding. “Unpredictable budgets cause profound problems for science,” reported Andrea Widener (C&EN, Jan. 28, page 28). “Science at its core is a long-term endeavor.”
Congratulations to those who are part of the European flagship projects! For the next 10 years, they can concentrate on advancing science rather than searching for funds.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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