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Programming the union

Five years after the European Commission introduced a set of Joint Programming Initiatives, the approach has been slow to get going. Rebecca Hill examines two JPIs as they try to promote cooperation between nations.

Collaboration and joint funding are perhaps the most overused phrases in European research policy, despite the fact that only 15 per cent of member states’ research budgets are spent on joint projects.

The EU’s Framework programmes might, at first glance, be perfect for fostering transnational cooperation in Europe. But as most of Europe’s public research spending comes from national programmes, effective international collaboration depends on getting national agencies to work well together.

In 2008, the European Commission introduced joint programming in an effort to simplify collaboration outside the Framework programmes and get member states to increase the number of shared priorities. Now that the economic crisis has hit national budgets hard, it seems that European countries are struggling to find resources to allocate to the Joint Programming Initiatives.

The first of the 10 JPIs is on neurodegenerative disease, and 27 countries have signed up so far. Its management committee’s chairman, Philippe Amouyel, speaks very positively about its impact on researchers and the amount of interest it has generated. What’s important, he says, is willingness. If countries are willing to work hard to collaborate and provide funds for the programmes, a JPI “can and will succeed”.

Amouyel acknowledges that there were many years of planning between signing the initial agreement in 2008 and launching the first call in 2011. Common research priorities had to be identified and a strategic research agenda drafted, redrafted and then implemented.

This system has been taken on by the subsequent JPIs, all of which focus on societal challenges such as climate change and healthy lifestyles. The use of such common principles suggests that regular meetings between JPIs would be useful. “It would be great if the chairpersons of the management boards and scientific advisory boards could meet and [talk about] problems, challenges and solutions,” says Herman Goossens, chairman of the scientific advisory board for the JPI on antimicrobial resistance. “We don’t at the moment.”

One challenge Goossens has faced is a difference of opinion on what JPI membership involves. “I think many countries have committed themselves to supporting the JPI, but some haven’t thought about what is expected from them,” he says. “It’s going to take time to get everyone moving in the same direction.”

Another problem for the JPIs has been defining what is meant by joint programming, which is easily misinterpreted. Some JPIs have been criticised for focusing their efforts too much on simply putting out joint calls.

“It’s nice to do joint calls, but it’s just one step on the path,” says Martin Schmid, head of the unit for transnational programmes at Austria’s science ministry. He was part of a team that produced a report on JPIs for the Council of Ministers in February.

As the scheme progresses, the most important point for Schmid is that the JPIs focus on longer-term goals. These should include bringing together the national research programmes and working to assess and identify gaps in the knowledge base. “It’s a difficult thing to do though,” he concedes. “I’m not sure all of the JPIs are on the right track or if they have the right resources to do this.”

The antimicrobial JPI is trying hard to achieve these goals, says Peter Taylor, who is on both the steering committee and management board. He agrees that joint calls should not be the main driver. “One issue we’ve discussed at length is how to better coordinate activities in Europe that aren’t covered by these calls, and to get a better idea of how research is undertaken in the member states. That’s an important part of our job,” he says.

The task of persuading national funding bodies to part with their money falls to the JPIs’ management boards. As with all Pan-European research calls, some countries inevitably put in less cash than others, making diplomacy and political wrangling a large part of the job.

JPI members who don’t contribute cash to a call aren’t eligible for funding, but decision-making is a competitive process and there is no guarantee of a successful proposal just because a country adds to the pot. Amouyel says that one call by his JPI led to only five of 57 applications being funded. He says he tried to persuade unsuccessful countries to work with a funded project through fellowships or postdoctoral grants, in an effort to retain their investment.

Goossens says it remains to be seen whether the JPIs will succeed in the long term. “I’m a strong believer in the concept, but there have been other interesting [EU] instruments that haven’t been successful.”

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