FP9 needs to improve on its predecessors!
Better funded and better organised research programmes are an urgent priority for the health of us all.
The Alliance for Biomedical Research in Europe (BioMed Alliance) recently published a position paper highlighting some important issues that should be addressed within the next FP9 framework programme, some of which I would like to discuss in this perspective. Despite the enormous personal and economic benefits that improved health can bring, previous Framework Programmes have failed to allocate generous resources to research in this field. Only 10.5% of Horizon 2020’s initial budget of €80 billion was earmarked for biomedical and health-related research, amounting to an investment of approximately €2-3 per EU resident per annum. Its predecessors did not perform much better either, with less than 15% of their budgets dedicated to medical research.
We believe that the added value and the potential of EU funding are most evident in health research, which is often too complex to be effectively supported or managed at the national level. But funding of biomedical research at European level does not reflect the high return on investment associated with it, and needs to be substantially increased before it can do so.
Yet the benefits of health research are easy to see already. Biomedical research has advanced diagnostics, therapeutics and technology, and had a major impact on life expectancy and healthy life years. A healthy population in itself generates, besides a healthier life for each individual, an important economic benefit. Innovation gives rise to new companies and employment, and increases in public expenditure on biomedical and health research boost academic as well as private sector research and development. Last, but not least, over 50% of Europe’s cumulative research output, measured by the number of journal papers and citations, can be traced back to publicly funded biomedical and clinical research.
At BioMed Alliance we believe that basic, clinical and translation research are closely intertwined, and that increased funding for all three areas is crucial in order for European health research to achieve its full potential. A strong commitment to basic research under FP9 is essential. This ultimate source of innovation must be better supported by public funds if it is to continue to produce new ideas. Despite its significant long-term potential, there is little incentive for the private sector to invest in blue sky research – the economic gains are just not seen quickly enough.
In the clinical field, high-quality, industry-independent academic research is key to the pursuit of outcomes that provide added short-term value for patients. EU funding is particularly needed for clinical research that is unlikely to get support from industry: research that is patient- and disease-centred rather than drug-oriented, with emphasis on treatments such as surgery and radiotherapy, or focusing on areas that tend to be neglected, such as preventive medicine and rare diseases.
The importance of translational research is insufficiently supported by the fragmented funding structure of the Horizon 2020 programme. There is a need for continued funding of multidisciplinary collaborations in translational research – whether initiated bottom-up or top-down – to foster knowledge transfer, entrepreneurship and partnerships between academia and industry. As the prime source for funding of successful collaborative multidisciplinary translational research, EU support is indispensable. Support for such research helps to ensure that European patients and society at large gain maximum benefit from the latest innovations. Considering the increasingly interactive, multidisciplinary and circular nature of 21st century science, there is an urgent need for a better integration of complex processes, from basic research to clinical practice and back again. This also requires an investment in special training programmes for the next generation of young researchers. We, at a European level, also have to educate research-oriented clinicians and clinically oriented researchers under FP9.
All of this requires a long-term vision and strategic approach, which is currently less than optimal. While there is plenty of successful research across Europe, it is often scattered and operates in silos. The Research Framework Programmes have been a step in the right direction, but more is needed in the field of strategic planning in order to strengthen biomedical and clinical research.
We believe that the creation of a European Council for Health Research, mandated to develop and fund a science-led vision and long-term strategy for health research, would go a long way to filling this gap. Such a Council would involve, in addition to scientists, citizens, patients and health professionals. A bottom-up scientific council composed of leading biomedical scientists would develop a long-term strategy for biomedical research and innovation, in close interaction with policy makers and other relevant sectors of research and industry.
The European Council for Health Research would be able to foster research while, at the same time, creating societal benefits and a long-term positive economic impact. Its creation would demonstrate commitment to biomedical research in Europe and promote the EU as a global hub for health research innovation, attracting today’s top researchers as well as the next generation of research talents.
We strongly believe that it’s not Utopian to have faith in the idea that Europeans can have an even further improved quality of life, resulting from basic, clinical and translational research, that can contribute to personal, national, and international prosperity, and that we don’t have to wait for decades before we see this happening. It’s simply a question of better funding, better planning, and better co-ordination.
Wilfried Ellmeier, PhD, Professor of Immunobiology, Medical University of Vienna, Treasurer and member of the BioMed Alliance Board of Directors.
Loredana Simulescu, BioMed Alliance Policy Officer
 Bouillon et al. 2015. Public investment in biomedical research in Europe. Lancet 386: 1335
 European Medical Research Councils. Why we need a new strategy for health research in Europe. Science|Business. 22 November 2012
 Scientific Panel for Health.The value of collaborative research in Europe, presentation by Karin Sipido at the European Parliament, 29 November 2016 - link