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All eyes on Europe
July 2013
by Lloyd Dunlap  |  Email the author


BARCELONA, Spain—Science policymakers, funders and researchers recently spent two days here trying to figure out how to launch major new research facilities, but progress was at best uneven. Unlike the United States, where such facilities are typically funded by one organization with deep pockets, in Europe it is necessary to persuade many smaller groups—with disparate procedures, cultures and funding methods—to cooperate. That's where the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), a creation of the European Union, comes in.
In 2006, the ESFRI published a list of 35 proposed projects stemming from a peer-reviewed process that determined they were worthy of pan-European interest. In 2008, the list grew to 44 projects. The European Advanced Translational Research Infrastructure in Medicine (EATRIS) and EU-LIFE are two such initiatives.  
To assist in advancing new therapies and diagnostics for chronic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's, EATRIS hopes to help bridge the "translational gap" that currently separates medical research from applications in the clinic. EATRIS will operate through a pan-European consortium of 60 prominent academic institutions, which includes leading biomedical translational research centers such as the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) in Italy (known as "the Italian NIH"), the Commissariat à L'Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA) in France, the Free University Medical Center in the Netherlands, the Institute of Molecular and Translational Medicine in the Czech Republic, the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and "naturally, many more," notes EATRIS' scientific director, Dr. Giovanno Migliaccio.
Underscoring the challenges faced by Europeans, Migliaccio goes on to explain: "From the non-scientific side, EATRIS is unique in that all institutes operate under a framework agreement encompassing a harmonized intellectual property policy, access procedure and quality requirements, with use of template project agreements and other legal documents. This allows us to create small, high-quality, purpose-built consortia for clients (whether from Big Pharma, national funding bodies or from our internal academic community) very quickly by using a detailed database of our EATRIS institutions' capabilities for matchmaking, and greatly reduced negotiating time resulting from the existing framework agreement. These consortia also benefit from the crossover synergies between platforms, facilitating access to the latest in imaging and biomarker developments for an optimal development trajectory."  
Commenting further on the launch, Migliaccio says, "The inauguration of EATRIS activities comes after a lengthy preparation. We are confident that our research infrastructure will have a positive impact on the translational medicines field within the European Research Area (ERA) and will deliver significant and tangible benefits to Europe's citizens." The consortium will work to ensure EATRIS becomes a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC), a legal entity created specifically for setting up joint research facilities at a European level.
"Our legal entity is an ERIC," Migliaccio notes, "which can only be created by member states' governments. Thus our participating country governments are the 'owners,' and it is their research institutions that make up our consortium."
Meanwhile, last month, the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), directors and staff from 10 top European research institutes kicked off a new alliance called EU-LIFE that will promote European research. The stated mission of EU-LIFE is "to foster excellence, share knowledge, and influence policies in life sciences." Partners in EU-LIFE are the "co-leaders," the CRG and VIB (Belgium), the Institut Curie (France), the Netherlands Cancer Institute, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), Berlin-Buch (Germany), Istituto Europeo di Oncologia (Italy), Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (Portugal), the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Austria), the Central European Institute of Technology (CEITEC) (Czech Republic) and the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland, described as "renowned research centers that operate with similar principles of excellence, external reviews, independence, competitiveness, and internationality. During difficult economic times and within a highly competitive international research landscape, they believe that they can join forces to better address complex questions, thereby contributing to pushing European science forward."  
"Why are we often not able to attract top students from the U.S.? Why do many of our junior talents leave to other continents and don't return?" reflects Luis Serrano, director of the CRG in Spain, and one of the co-founders of this initiative. "There are many excellent research institutes in Europe. By increasing our international visibility through EU-LIFE, we aim to raise awareness for European science. Instead of working independently, we want to coordinate our efforts to create added value for Europe. We envision, for example, to agree on common standards for Ph.D. and postdoctoral recruitment and training programs, and to organize joint scientific events for young scientists."  
If this all seems a bit fuzzy, or at best, conditional, that's probably an accurate assessment. As Migliaccio explains about ERIC, "The primary benefit is international recognition and exemption from local value-added taxes. Furthermore, we hope that the European Commission will support ERIC infrastructures closely, given that they are a result of the European project. How this support will manifest itself, however, is at this point still unclear. Naturally, we hope that funding will be part of it."
Code: E071305



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