Published: 28.01.13

EU launches two flagships

The die is cast: the EU is launching two large-scale research projects for the next ten years in the form of “Graphene” and the “Human Brain Project”. “FuturICT” and “Guardian Angels”, both of which scientists from ETH Zurich played a significant role in developing, come away empty-handed.

Roman Klinlger
The fact that three of the four projects in the final round of the flagship competition were largely initiated by researchers from ETH Zurich and the EPFL is a testimony to Swiss research. (Photo: A. Lingk / ETH Zurich)
The fact that three of the four projects in the final round of the flagship competition were largely initiated by researchers from ETH Zurich and the EPFL is a testimony to Swiss research. (Photo: A. Lingk / ETH Zurich) (large view)

A press conference in Brussels chaired by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the EU, has now officially confirmed what has been floating around in the media for the last few days following an information leak: there are two winning projects in the Flagship Initiative and they are called “Graphene” and “Human Brain Project”, the leading houses on which are Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the EPFL respectively. Lausanne thus has every reason to celebrate. With the launch of the first two FET projects, the EU is strengthening its commitment towards promoting pioneering research in the field of information and communication technology with a view to boosting Europe’s competitiveness.

In a lengthy evaluation process stretching over the last one and a half years, a total of six pilot projects were investigated. As already reported, the six finalists included three projects which scientists from ETH Zurich or the EPFL played a major role in shaping. “FuturICT”, which, in the age of “big data”, is looking to use the data streams for socially relevant simulations, was coordinated by University College London (UCL) and ETH Zurich through sociophysicist and complexity researcher Dirk Helbing. In the case of the “Guardian Angels” project, which is looking to develop especially energy-saving and miniscule sensor systems in the next few years that might be used to monitor the environment or vital functions in the human body, for instance, the EPFL (Professor Adrian Ionescu) and ETH Zurich (Professor Christofer Hierold) shared the project management.

Eventually, a team headed by EPFL researcher Henry Markram also applied for the millions in EU funding with the “Human Brain Project” (HBP). From a Swiss perspective, Markram has now won the race for the EPFL. Several Swiss universities, including the Empa, are involved in the second funded project “Graphene”, albeit with the leading house in Sweden. From ETH Zurich, solid-state physicist Klaus Ensslin participated in the project. In an interview with ETH Life, he explains the project’s vision and precisely what ETH Zurich’s role will be.

Calm responses among ETH Zurich researchers

“We congratulate our colleagues at the EPFL on their triumphant Human Brain Project,” comments ETH Zurich President Ralph Eichler in response to the results. The Executive Board of ETH Zurich hails the excellent result of the flagship finalists as a great overall achievement for Swiss research. “The researchers involved have invested a huge amount of blood, sweat, tears and work in these projects alongside their numerous other duties and that merits a great deal of respect,” adds Roland Siegwart, Vice-President of Research and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich.

While the champagne corks pop elsewhere, Dirk Helbing is disappointed with the elimination of “FuturICT” but not contrite. All the work of the last few years has not been in vain, says Helbing, as it gave rise to a number of interesting ideas and collaborating with enthusiastic colleagues was “one of the best experiences I have had in my life”. Thanks to the project, an international science community emerged, which broke down the barriers between computer science, social science and complexity research seriously for the first time. Hopefully, the FuturICT idea will find its way somewhere else. However, it does raise the question as to whether Europe is able to take the lead or should leave it to the fertile ground of America or Asia. “They are already working flat out on rival projects there,” says Helbing.

The “no” from Brussels does not mean that the research approaches or groups involved were not the right ones to achieve the goals set, says Christofer Hierold, Co-Leader of “Guardian Angels” in response to the rejection. “We’re one of four finalists in an extraordinary European competition, where three projects in the final round were largely initiated under the guidance of researchers from Switzerland.” That alone is motivation and confirmation enough to seek alternatives for project funding – on a European level or nationally, says Hierold.

Funding fraught with uncertainty

The FET Initiative has attracted a lot of attention since its launch in 2009, not least through the announcements of the EU officials to secure a leading role for Europe in the competition with the USA and Asia. The prospective sums also caused a stir: there was talk of a total funding volume of EUR one billion per project promoted spread over a period of ten years. In this respect, the EU Commission headed by Dutchwoman Neelie Kroes not only set new benchmarks, but also fanned the flames of expectation in the process.

The two triumphant consortia of “Graphene” and Human “Brain Project” now have high expectations. The funding model stipulates that the EU and the project partners involved are to put up half the money each. For the first thirty months (ramp-up phase), the EU will provide the two victorious consortia with EUR fifty-four million apiece. The money will still be drawn from the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), which runs until the end of 2013.

What form the on-going funding under the follow-up programme “Horizon 2020” will take and how high the EU’s effective portion will be is yet to be confirmed. In the face of the continuing financial and economic uncertainties in Europe, however, the continued funding of the two flagship projects will most likely still have to overcome one hurdle or another.

The finalists for the flagship projects

Graphene” is seeking new ways to produce graphene, which is considered a miracle material on account of its unique combination of properties. New methods are needed to enable graphene to be produced on a large scale in an industrial context. The leading house on the project is Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. 130 research groups from eighty universities, including ETH Zurich, the Empa and the universities of Zurich, Basel and Geneva, are involved in the project.

FuturICT” is looking to develop a new simulation platform to make large amounts of data from complex technical and social systems more accessible for analysis. The analysis of the data should yield new sociological, political, economic and technological insights. The responsibility for the scientific coordination lies with sociophysicist Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich, the management at University College London. In all, around 300 scientists from eighty-four European research facilities are involved in the project.

The aim of “Guardian Angels” is to develop highly efficient zero-power technology with a network comprising autonomous sensors. These electronic guardian angels are to be used for the medical monitoring of ill or elderly people, environmental monitoring and in disaster prevention. The “Guardian Angels” consortium comprises sixty-six partners, including twenty-nine universities, sixteen research facilities and twenty-one companies. The leading house is ETH Lausanne and co-leading house ETH Zurich through Professor Christofer Hierold.

The aim of the “Human Brain Project” coordinated by the EPFL is to model the human brain on a computer. The insights obtained should, among other things, make progress in the battle against diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s while facilitating the development of new supercomputers.

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