There is an undeniable need for improved collaboration and strategic coordination in European research. The challenge is to deliver this in an efficient and effective manner without hampering the creative vision and innovation of the scientists involved. In some quarters, the concept of a European Research Area has prompted the notion that an overarching body, such as a European Research Council (ERC), might take on this role. Is an administrative structure like the ERC truly necessary? In modern biomedical science, networking and working jointly across borders are already intrinsic parts of leading-edge research. Few scientists need encouragement to form alliances with colleagues in other countries, and scientists will choose quality in preference to geography in seeking partnerships. A measure of the extent of international collaborations is that in a survey of research publications by Medical Research Council (MRC)?supported scientists in 1996, 40% cited support from non-UK funders.
Our role as funders of science is to facilitate, nurture, and build collaborations. It is my view that in biomedical research we need a dynamic and flexible system to meet the constantly changing needs of science. This can be achieved if funding organizations of individual countries establish a synergistic and coordinated working relationship to improve collaboration in particular areas where true added value can be achieved.
In the UK, we took a major step forward in cancer research by establishing the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI). This has been created to coordinate all aspects of cancer research in the UK, from basic research to clinical trials. The NCRI brings together the major cancer research charities, the MRC, the UK Government?s Health Departments with input from the pharmaceutical industry. It operates under a simple administrative structure, which co-ordinates the activities of the participating bodies while allowing them to retain their own identities and vigor. The NCRI also provides a focal point for international collaborations in cancer research.
We at the MRC are always ready to explore new initiatives with our partners in other countries in Europe and beyond, particularly in the area of clinical trials. For example we established a successful collaboration with the US Veterans Association and Canadian Institutes of Health Research, so that jointly we can fund larger, more powerful and hence shorter studies than can be achieved nationally. Such interactions also help best practice in trial design and management, and maximize the effectiveness of the investment of the three funding bodies. The first study of this group, the $12 million OPTIMA clinical trial for the evaluation of clinical management strategies for HIV patients, was launched recently.
In Europe, the Pasteur Institute, other French organizations, and the MRC are taking a lead role within the European Commission in the development of a broad and coherent response to the ongoing emergency caused in developing societies by the major communicable diseases: malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS. The aim is to establish a European Clinical Trials Platform (ECTP) to accelerate the development of new clinical interventions against their diseases. Again, the method envisaged is to network the relevant national research programmes of key EU Member States, in this case in collaboration with developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
National research organizations can also participate in cross-border research through their research institutes. For example, MRC Units and Institutes are involved in many international collaborations. In the European arena, these include more than 60 major research and training networks funded by the 5th EU Framework Programme. We believe in nurturing closer links between national centres of excellence in key strategic areas where mutual benefit can be identified, both with partners in Europe (for example in mouse genomics) and the United States (in cardiovascular research). This follows our view that effective and productive collaboration is best facilitated by modifying existing mechanisms to respond to scientific vision from the research community.
How can we link research groups form other countries to national collaborative groups? The MRC has a funding scheme for cooperative groups, where the aim is to bring together a critical mass of independent researchers and their projects to increase productivity. Enabling groups from outside the UK to join cooperative groups might prove effective in opening up science funding in Europe. Mobility of young scientists is an essential part of international collaborations. This is why we contribute to the international European Molecular Biology Organization and Human Frontier Science Program fellowship schemes and hope to make MRC research studentships available to all European Union nationals in the future.