On 28th November 2017, the Cardiff Hub hosted a networking event and panel debate on international research networks. The goal of the session was to create opportunities for researchers and private companies to join international research networks and to increase international collaboration.
After the networking lunch, Professor Ole Petersen, Academic Director of the Cardiff Hub, introduced the members of the panel and opened the debate.
Our first panellist, Professor Sierd Cloetingh, President of Academia Europaea and President of the COST Association, presented an overview on COST. It currently involves 36 countries and close to 50,000 researchers, and its mission is to promote and spread research excellence in Europe. COST provides different instruments like workshops, dissemination activities and short-term scientific missions, but the most important network tools are the COST Actions. These enable the building of a community, foster interdisciplinarity and are open to all fields, all countries and all career stages. They are also unique in the fact that once the action has been approved, researchers from additional countries can join. Professor Cloetingh highlighted two essential aspects of COST: its appeal to researchers as a bottom-up initiative, and its role as a gateway to the European Framework Programme, with a success rate of 28%.
Abdul Rahim, Director Vision2020, provided an update on Vision2020. Since its foundation in 2013, 211 SME and 66 research and technology organisations from over 41 countries have joined the network. Each institution has a champion who is responsible for identifying researchers (Nick Bodycombe in the case of Cardiff University). Vision2020 hosts events focused on the creation of consortia for specific Horizon2020 open calls and it has proved to have a very high impact. Abdul Rahim also talked about the platform Crowdhelix, which matches companies and academics for collaborations on grant proposals and projects.
Professor Adrian Harwood, Co-Director of Research and Co-Director of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute at Cardiff University, shared his experience as chair of the COST Action Maximizing Impact of Research in NeuroDevelopmental Disorders (MINDDS). He explained that, to be able to conduct research, his team needs data from certain individuals who are very rare and very difficult to identify. The solution proposed was to generate a pan-European network of researchers, clinicians and patient representatives to create a trans-national cohort of patients and standardise the methodology. They decided to apply for a COST Action and, after a first attempt, the second submission was successful. The Action has just been set up with 19 COST countries, 6 of which are inclusiveness target countries, and the objective is to build up a network of about 30 European and international countries. He underlined the bottom-up character of the COST Actions as the best feature of the programme, and the openness of the network as the biggest challenge.
Professor Phil Jones, Chair of Architectural Science and Chair of the Low Carbon Research Institute (LCRI) at Cardiff University, provided direct insight about Vision2020 through his involvement in the Energy Helix, hosted by Cardiff University and run from the Energy System Research Institute. He explained that 3 events have been organised since 2015, and there are 2 more events planned for the near future. The aim of these events is to put consortia together to respond to open calls for funding. The programme of events includes speakers from the European Commission, academia and industry talking about the energy agenda, and working sessions where participants gain experience of taking part in consortia and preparing proposals. Professor Jones was of the opinion that past events have been very successful in raising awareness about the programme and providing tools to write a proposal. For future events, however, he would like to prepare consortia in advance to be able to concentrate on excellence and deliver top quality projects.
Sir John Skehel, from The Francis Crick Institute and Vice-President & Biological Secretary, The Royal Society, focused on the collaboration of The Francis Crick Institute with industry and emphasised Crick’s objective to accelerate translation for health and wealth. He described the established team of people responsible for translation and commercial research, as well as a translation training programme organised in the Institute that is open to all. He detailed the funding for this translation and innovation strategy, which is largely provided by the Medical Research Council. He also pointed out two framework agreements with two companies (GSK and AstraZeneca), which address the joint intention to start the translation process at an early stage.
In open discussion, the main themes concerned the lack of control of the people joining a COST Action, and the impact of Brexit in international research networks.
Regarding the COST Actions, Professor Harwood acknowledged this as a challenge and a test to leadership, but highlighted the benefit of getting experts volunteering to collaborate and fill the gaps in the consortium. He also mentioned that he was impressed by the motivation of the researchers who join the actions.
As for the implications of Brexit, Abdul Rahim explained that, after the referendum, Vision2020 anticipated less engagement from UK institutions. However, the involvement of British organisations has grown and institutions still need to mantain the networks for future UK international research funding. He also expressed concerns about the lack of confidence and guidance to some academics, and the uncertainties on the future approach of the UK Government to research funding.
Sierd Cloetingh said that Brexit has not affected COST so far and underlined the individual reactions and choices of researchers, which go beyond academia, as invisible consequences of Brexit.
John Skehel observed that the Royal Society felt optimistic in spite of the general concerns about the economy, and above all, mobility.
The Chair asked the members of the panel to make a concluding comment. They encouraged UK academics to apply for European funding and remarked on the benefits of international collaboration, especially for early career researchers.