Graphene and the HumanBrainProject

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That graphene is the material of the future has been said in all the word's languages, or better, at least in all the European ones. The reason is that on 28 January 2013, the EU announced that it will allocate the unprecedented amount of one billion euro to subsidize research on this innovative material, which in 2010 earned its two inventors, the Russians Andre Geim e Kostya Novoselov from the University of Manchester, the Nobel Prize for physics.

It seems that graphene, a very thin layer of carbon atoms, has such extraordinary physical, electrical and magnetic properties that it may revolutionize technology in communication, medicine, pharmaceutical and energy industries. Vincenzo Palermo, of the Institute for the Organic Synthesis and Photoreactivity of the CNR, even called it "the plastic of the future". But graphene is just one of the projects in which the EU is planning to invest over the next ten years; the other project, winner of the same European competition "Future and Emerging Technologies", is the one focusing on the artificial brain, Human Brain Project (HBP), i.e. the ability to trace the functioning of neural networks through a network of powerful computers, in order to shed light on the origin of diseases like Parkinson and Alzheimer, which are still poorly known. Graphene and HBP competed against 19 other projects that, in two years (applications were accepted until 20 July 2010), had to demonstrate they had the right characteristics to become the cutting edge of European "research and development".

In January 2011, the projects went through an initial skimming, being brought down from twenty-one to six

  • futurITC, a simulator of human activity that can predict the consequences of our complex behaviours on a planetary scale;
  • Graphene, an in-depth study on the physico-chemical properties of graphene and its applications;
  • Guardian Angel, autonomous and intelligent systems providing assistance to individuals,
  • Human brain project, a simulation of the functioning of a biological brain,
  • IT Future of medicine, an instrument capable of estimating the degree of health and the effect of different treatments on individual patients;
  • RoboCom a machine providing full assistance to citizens.

These first six finalists were given one year and 1.5 million euro each to carry out their research and demonstrate they were those most deserving the prize. In December 2012, a panel of 25 world experts composed of scientists, distinguished professors, advisors, politicians, Nobel laureates, multinational representatives and Science & Society experts evaluated the six projects and awarded the prize to Graphene and Human Brain Project.

The award criteria, set out in the call for proposals, were the development of science and technology at the highest levels, generating as much impact as possible on science, technology, society and the economy, and building a strong collaboration network across different European entities. The Graphene project led by Jari Kinaret of the Chalmers University of Technology of Gothesburg, Sweden, will coordinate 176 academic and industrial research groups located in 17 European countries, while the Human Brain Project, led by Henry Markam of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland, will lead a consortium of 87 organizations in 23 countries including universities, research centers and industries.

WHAT ABOUT ITALY?

CNR is among the European research groups that will work on graphene and will be entitled to "almost 10% of the planned budget for two of the eleven planned activities", says Vittorio Pellegrini coordinator of the CNR Institute of Nanoscience, while the Lens laboratory of the University of Florence, the Polytechnic of Turin, the University of Pavia, the IRCCS Fatebenefratelli of Brescia and the interuniversity Consortium CINECA of Bologna are among the partners of the project led by the Lausanne Polytechnic.

However, the funds made available by the EU do not represent the end of our research, but rather the means by which we can evaluate the health and competitiveness of Italian research, if for no other reason, that the funds coming from Europe are provided in the first place by the Member Countries themselves (as a percentage of GDP). In this regard, the specifications of each project funded by the EU as well as the related amount invested from the budget can be found in CORDIS Community Research and Development Information Service; it turns out that, since 1990, the EU has funded 8,690 projects coordinated by Italy (we rank fourth, with Great Britain leading with 17,938 projects) and 24,700 projects in which Italy participated other than as leader (again ranking fourth with Great Britain leading by participating in 37,008 projects). In order to correctly interpret these data, however, it should be remembered that in Italy researchers account for 0.4% of the working population while in the UK this figure is approximately 0.6% (same value for France and Germany). The result is that scientific research contributes to our being "Europe" far more than politics or economy do.

WHAT DOES EUROPE EXPECT FROM GRAPHENE AND THE HBP?

The Flagship projects, as the FET winning projects are called, i.e. Graphene and HBP, are the means for taking Europe out of the doldrums and into the much awaited recovery, re-establishing its economic and political influence. Obviously, Europe expects this funding to have technological repercussions that will provide new stimulus to industries, making them more competitive; just think that the winners include industrial entities such as Novartis, IBM of Zurich, the Nokia labs, Philips, Alcatel-Lucent, Thales, ST Microelectronics and Airbus.

At a time of an economic crisis, Europe has chosen to place its bet on research as a form of long-term investment. A risk, though, that has been carefully thought-out and calculated: the expected outcomes will in any case hardly go unmet; indeed, in 2006 it was estimated that every 7 euro invested per year in research and development may result in an increase in gross domestic product of 200 euro per year in 2030.

Europe embraced this belief and the Treaty of Amsterdam (2 October 1997) included an entire chapter on research and development.The result was a considerable increase in funds allocated to long-term research programmes, called Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development and numbered from 1 to 7; the budget allocated to the first Framework Programme (1984 - 1988) was 3 billion euro while that of the seventh Framework Programme, which started in 2007 and will take us to the end of 2013, is 50 billion euro. At the end of 2013, the eighth framework program, renamed Horizons 2020, will kick off. Among its objectives, there is the allocation of 80 billion euro (2014-2020) and the goal for 2020 of bringing research and development expenditure to 3% of GDP.
The 7th Framework Programme and Horizons 2020 will therefore be responsible for overseeing the Flagship Projects and ensure they receive the planned resources.

IS ALL THAT GLITTERS GOLD?

While in Europe we are cheerfully toasting at the news of this significant investment, some criticism is making its way across the ocean on the pages of Science. Obviously, the major concerns focus on the choice of the winners: according to many scientists, the artificial brain project is too simplistic and overlooks the gaps in our current knowledge on the various stages of brain activity, possibly diverting funds from other valid research projects in neurosciences; meanwhile, others even question the amazing properties of graphene and state that it will not be so easy to introduce this material into the market by bending it to commercial demands.

In addition, there are substantial criticisms as to how and if Europe will be able to keep its funding commitment. Actually, as stated by the EU itself, part of the money (about half) will be provided by the European Union while the other part by the participants (universities, Member States, private sector and industry). In this regard, however, in early January the German Minister for Research told Science that German contribution would depend on the winning project, admitting he was quite skeptical on the whole idea of the "FET Flagship".
In October 2012, the FuturICT project apparently had the upper hand leading the ranking; in December, however, something changed: the project leaders denounced a change in the evaluation criteria in the course of work as the EU need for technology transfer to industry was becoming increasingly clear.

How good is Europe's choice? Whether the winners have lived up to expectations we will only know over the next few years; at the moment the FET Flagship is the winner: a tool that is currently under scrutiny by the entire community who will be able to ascertain the validity and effectiveness of this funding mechanism in the coming decades. "FET Flagship was not created to launch two projects but to test it as a viable funding model" said the coordinator of the European Commission projects in Brussels, Wolfgang Boch, to Science. There are those who noted how most of the times discoveries and research develop in a totally spontaneous manner, and doubt that the FET Flagship top-down mechanism may really give birth to those innovative technologies that normally arise from basic research: "No one asked for a World Wide Web or emitting diodes (LEDs)," said Marja Makarow, Managing Director of the Europe Science Foundation.

Also on the pages of Science, Peter Konig, a neuroscientist at the University of Osnabruck, Germany, expressed his disappointment: "Nobody could explain me why replacing 3,000 good projects with only one was a good idea". Perhaps the best answer to his question was given by Steve Jobs in 1997: "The secret of innovation is saying no to 1.000 things”. We'll see.

 

Bibliography:

- "Graphene and Brain Projects Win European Jackpot", Science, vol 339, 1 February 2013;
- FET Flagships: Frequently Asked Question  http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-13-36_en.htm;
- "Brain-simulation and graphene projects win billion euro competition", Nature 23 January 2013;
- "European researchers chase billion-euro technology prize", Nature 8 March 2011;
- "Graphene is Science promised land", Il Sole 24 ore 29 January 2013;
- "Graphene, Europe ahead of the future", www.scienzainrete.it 28 January 2013;
- "Artificial brain and graphene: EU's two billion euro bet", www.larepubblica.it  28 January 2013;
- "Research prize boost for Europe", Nature 29 January 2013;
- "Europe’s 2 billion bet on the future", Science, vol 339, 4 January 2013;
- Graphene appointed an EU Future Emerging Technology flagship, www.grapene-flagship.eu;
- The Human Brain Project www.humanbrainproject.eu;
- Press release, "The biggest prize for excellence in the history of research won by the "Graphene" and "Human Brain" projects" while the battle for adequate funding to science is still on": http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-54_it.htm;
- Communication of the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Framework Programme for Research and innovation" Horizon 2020": http://ec.europa.eu/research/horizon2020/index_en.cfm;
- Muldur, U., et al., "A New Deal for an Effective European Research Policy," Springer 2006;
- "Italy will take part in the Human Brain Project, the project for the construction of an electronic brain simulator funded by the EU", www.universita.it 31 January 2013
; http://noi-italia2011.istat.it/fileadmin/user_upload/allegati/88.pdf
;
- "Italy and the European Funds for Research", www.ilfattoquotidiano.it , 18 May 2012
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- "Blue Brain Founder responds to critics, clarifies his goals", Science, 11 November 2011, pg. 748

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