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Joined-up approach needs champions

The EU’s latest research coordination scheme is running out of steam

It is five years since the European Commission introduced an instrument called Joint Programming to aid coordination between the national research programmes that account for most European research spending.

The Joint Programme on Neurodegenerative Disease, the first of the 10 initiatives now under way, is already supporting valuable medical research. But progress elsewhere has been patchy and, although it is too early to pronounce the approach a failure, more impetus is urgently needed if it is to succeed.

The problems were apparent from the start, when the tendency of focused approaches to morph into Pan-European forms—seeking to please everyone and satisfying no-one—struck the JPND. The programme’s scope broadened from Alzheimer’s to neurodegenerative disease, and the planned partnership between France, Germany and the UK turned into a collaboration between 27 partner nations. The alignment of 27 sets of capabilities and needs naturally proved more time-consuming and cumbersome to manage than the initial concept.

Then came the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent retrenchment of research budgets in most member states. The prospect of a substantial fraction of any nation’s resources being channelled into European joint programmes became even more distant than it had been before.

Small groups of nations could benefit from pooling resources, but the internal logic of existing political structures often works against them doing so. For example, the main public champion of the joint programming approach is the European Commission. This means that smaller member states have equal—thus disproportionate—influence. At the same time, most of the money and scientific excellence is in the larger member states, where the preference is to go it alone. The result is gridlock.

In any case, the Commission’s backing has seemed rather half-hearted. Joint programming has not been a priority for research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn or for Commission president José Manuel Barroso. They prefer, perhaps understandably, to expend what political capital they have on the EU’s own research programme, Horizon 2020.

This has led to a leadership vacuum in joint programming. Despite the extent to which European nations need the intellectual fruits and critical mass that more effective coordination between national programmes could deliver, no-one is really fighting to make it happen.

Instead, national priorities have turned inwards even though researchers are looking outwards for collaborative partners. This cannot be allowed to continue. Research ministers from the large member states—France’s Geneviève Fioraso, Germany’s Johanna Wanka (or her successor) and the UK’s David Willetts—need to take charge of joint programming. They should streamline its governance, as necessary, and make sure that its implementation is a genuine priority for national research agencies.