The European Commission has selected six research projects—in areas from health and energy to artificial intelligence and cultural heritage—to compete to become one of its next billion-euro ‘flagship’ science initiativesNature has learned.

The commission chose the 6 candidates in December from a list of 16 proposals, say scientists on the shortlisted teams. On 1 March, each team will receive €1 million (US$1.1 million) to develop a detailed feasibility proposal over the next year. Up to three will be chosen to become fully fledged initiatives to launch in 2021.

The commission already supports three scientific mega-projects known as FET Flagships—on the brain, graphene and quantum technologies—which are each funded to the tune of around €1 billion over 10 years. The high-profile projects aim to make paradigm-shifting advances in their field—by bringing together expertise and funding from scores of academic and industrial sources across the continent—but haven’t been without criticism or controversy.

The six newly shortlisted initiatives include: a project that would explore how AI can enhance human capabilities; one to hasten clinical availability of cell and gene therapies; a personalized-medicine initiative; two projects that aim to make solar energy more efficient; and a humanities project called the Time Machine, which seeks to develop methods for enabling digital search of historical records in European cities.

Surprise selection

The Time Machine’s selection was a welcome surprise, says Frédéric Kaplan, a computer scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and one of the principal investigators on the project, which has already worked on Venice’s historical records. “As a project in cultural heritage, we were an outsider—it is a great victory to get this far,” says Kaplan.

The commission launched the original flagships in 2013 under its Future and Emerging Technologies Flagship (FET) programme, which is part of the European Union’s main Horizon 2020 research-funding programme. The FET Flagships were designed to tackle major scientific and technological challenges and contribute to societal and economic well-being in Europe. The commission stumps up half of the €1 billion for each and expects the project consortia to raise the rest.

The Human Brain Project and Graphene launched first after a call for proposals, and the commission added the Quantum Technologies project in 2017 at the behest of EU politicians who deemed the it necessary for Europe to keep pace in the field. Another flagship, on battery technologies, is under discussion following a similar top-down decision.

Fresh approach

Although based on the same principle as these initiatives, the structure and funding of future projects is likely to change—but it’s not yet clear how. Similar large-scale research initiatives are likely to be included in Horizon 2020’s successor, Horizon Europe, which will start in 2021 and end in 2027. The commission, which has not officially announced the shortlist, said that it could not provide detail on how “flagship-like” missions will work within Horizon Europe because it is still in the early phases of design.

“The approach is quite different, and there isn’t yet much clarity about how things will come together,” says cell biologist Daniela Corda, director of the CNR Institute for Protein Biochemistry in Naples, Italy, and Italian delegate to the Horizon 2020 programme committee.

One of the two health projects that were shortlisted, German-led consortium LifeTime, would create innovative platforms for personalized medicine. The platforms would measure how the molecular functions of individual cells and tissues change during the course of a person’s disease and its treatment, and use artificial intelligence and machine learning would reveal significant patterns in the data that might be biologically meaningful. LifeTime also proposes to develop tailored organoids—small organ-like cultures made from living cells—that can model an individual patient’s disease.

The other health project, RESTORE, led from the Berlin university hospital Charité, proposes developing the multiple steps needed to speed the translation of advanced cell and gene therapies to the clinic. These treatments hold great promise for common diseases such as cancer and diabetes, but are notoriously complicated and expensive to bring to the market.

The two solar-energy programmes are synergistic: one, Sunrise, seeks to improve the efficiency of solar-energy technologies by exploiting raw materials abundant in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, oxygen or nitrogen through, for example, developing artificial photosynthesis processes. (Sunrise, led from Leiden University in the Netherlands, announced its selection in a press release on 1 February.) ENERGY-X, led by the Technical University of Denmark, wants to boost efficiency in a different way—by developing catalysts and other chemical processes.

New horizons

The Humane AI team, also based at Leiden, works with a newly created, Europe-wide network of AI research laboratories called CLAIRE. The team envisions creating a funding agency that would select applications for AI development to enhance, rather than replace human capabilities, in any field—including Earth observation, medicine, the social sciences and transport.

Horizon Europe’s structure must be finally signed off next year by the European Commission, Council and Parliament, which all seem committed to the continuation of flagship-like research projects. Early details about Horizon Europe show that it will be structured differently from its Horizon 2020 and around the new concept of ‘missions’—clusters of projects set around explicit, measurable goals that have a direct impact on society in the short term, and these flagships might become these mission pillars. The Parliament, according to a spokesperson, wants to assume tighter control of the flagships’ generous budgets, “to avoid costly mistakes”.

Controversy plagued the original launch of the Flagships. The Human Brain Project had to be restructured 16 months after launch following a very public row about its management style, which neuroscientists said had become autocratic. The project got back on track in 2017 after substantial reforms to its management.

A 2017 interim expert review of the Human Brain Project and Graphene concluded that both were producing excellent science, but the report criticized some management practices and complained that the initiatives did not link well enough with national research programmes in Europe.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on February 11, 2019.