European Union awards two mega-research projects

Chalmers University in Sweden and the Swiss Federal Polytechnique in Lausanne have been selected to coordinate the European Union’s (EU) two biggest ever research grants. The Graphene and Human Brain mega-projects each have a budget of around €1 billion (US$1.36 billion).

The projects were selected from among six finalists to receive up to €1 billion each over a 10-year period, and will involve researchers in at least 15 EU member states and many institutions abroad – more than 200 institutions in all.

The European Commission will support the two projects under the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship Initiative for large-scale, science-driven projects “to achieve visionary technological goals”.

European Commission Vice-President Neelie Kroes said: “Europe’s position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas.”

The projects will be financed 50% from EU research and innovation programmes, principally Horizon 2020, which is currently being negotiated in the European parliament and council. But the commission has said the two FET projects are high priority and will go ahead even if research funding is scaled back.

The Graphene Project

The Graphene Project will be coordinated by a professor of physics, Juri Kinaret, at Chalmers University of Technology. The management team includes European Nobel laureates Andre Geim (chair), Albert Fert, Klaus von Klitzing and Konstantin Novoselov, and representatives from Nokia, Airbus and the global graphene research community.

Graphene consists of a sheet of carbon atoms, just one atom thick or about one hundred-thousandth the width of a human hair. It is believed to be 200 times stronger than steel.

The European Commission believes it will be the 'wonder material' of the 21st century, with potential applications including replacing silicon in ICT products and lighter and more energy efficient cars and aeroplanes.

“Graphene could be the most fantastic and multipurpose material humans ever have had access to”, said Chalmers University in a statement. “It is stronger than steel, but still flexible and its electrons can move a thousand times faster than silicone.”

Other Swedish universities involved are the Karolinska Institute, Umea and Linköpin, and there are nine consortium partners including the universities of Cambridge, Manchester and Lancaster, the Catalan Institute of Nanotechnology, Nokia Oyi and the European Science Foundation.

Starting in 2013, the Graphene flagship will coordinate 126 academic and industrial research groups in 17 European countries with an initial 30-month-budget of €54 million. The consortium will be extended with another 20 to 30 groups through an open call.

Cambridge’s Professor Andrea Ferrari said: “The grand challenge for the flagship is to target applications and manufacturing processes, at the same time broadening research to other two-dimensional materials and hybrid systems”.

The Human Brain Project

The goal of the Human Brain Project, said École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in a release, “is to pull together all our existing knowledge about the human brain and to reconstruct the brain, piece by piece, in supercomputer-based models and simulations.

“The models offer the prospect of new understanding of the human brain and its diseases and of completely new computing and robotic technologies.”

The project is estimated to cost €1.19 billion and will involve more than 80 European and international research institutions, including in North America and Japan.

It will be coordinated at EPFL in Switzerland by neuroscientist Henry Markram with co-directors Karlheinz Meier of Heidelberg University in Germany and Richard Frackowiak of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois and the University of Lausanne.

Switzerland played a vital role, allocating around €60 million from 2013-17 to support Markram’s laboratory at EPFL and the Swiss Supercomputing Center in Lugano. The Canton of Vaud will give €28 million to build a new facility centred around the project.

Patrick Aebischer, president of EPFL, told University World News that in choosing the Human Brain Project as a flagship, “Europe will lead one of the greatest challenges facing mankind – understanding the human brain.

“Simulation-based research is the next step in the evolution of the scientific process for the life sciences and medicine, and it is the new approach needed to unravel and understand an organ as complex as the brain.”

The project will develop ICT platforms for neuroinformatics, brain simulation and supercomputing that will make it possible to gather together neuroscience data from across the world, integrate the data in unifying models and simulations of the brain, check the models against data from biology and make them available to the world scientific community.

The ultimate goal is to allow neuroscientists to connect the dots leading from genes, molecules and cells to human cognition and behaviour.

Professor Jan G Bjaalie at the Institute of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Oslo, is contributing to the neuroinformatics part of the project. He said: “Integrating our data and knowledge about the brain is an important strategy for meeting the challenges of an ageing population and the subsequent steady increase in diseases affecting the brain.

“In a far-reaching perspective, the possible future consequences of Human Brain Project brain mapping will be an opportunity to find new treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons.”

Professor Jerzy Langer, of Academia Europaea (and previous deputy minister of scientific research and information society technologies in Poland), told University World News: “The FET flagships try to streamline EU and national funds on something which is concrete, visionary and has serious European advantage.

“The idea of FET flagships was problematic at the beginning because of lack of serious money. Selection is very good and it is a mix of scientific expertise and political choice." He explained that, as neither flagship is overwhelming the other, "chances are very good for both”.