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Unlocking the European Union convergence region potential in genetics

Final Report Summary - ECOGENE (Unlocking the European Union convergence region potential in genetics)

Executive summary:

The ECOGENE project had the general aim of strengthening the Estonian Biocentre's (EBC) research and development (R&D) capacity through increased international visibility and specific investment into our human capital. Given the recent positive developments in the infrastructural background for (genetics) research in Estonia, which has largely come about thanks to the European Union (EU) structural funds, developing our human capital is of utmost importance in order to make it possible for us to gain fully from the investments into infrastructure (both 'concrete' and 'equipment').

We concentrated on two aspects of developing human capital. We gave an effort to attract new researchers from abroad to take research positions in the EBC and identify underused human capital. In the latter case we offered promising experienced Estonian scientists who had worked abroad a 'soft landing' during repatriation. Secondly we offered 'women in science' (WIS) grants to women returning from child leave to be able to quickly regain competence and re-enter the competitive science arena. And thirdly we trained our young researchers in leading European centres so that the gained competence is reinvested into the EBC.

A dynamic scheme of short two-way study visits was used to quickly react on arising research opportunities and challenges as well as identifying future joint tasks and filing in additional grant applications were appropriate. This scheme was especially rewarding in terms of results in published papers.

Institutional visibility was promoted with two strategies. Firstly, it is clear the within the auditorium of scientist, where the abovementioned visibility is perhaps of most importance, the preferred media for communication of visibility includes top-ranking scientific journals. Therefore we regard the over 60 published papers probably the best manifestation of increased visibility. The other important media, which in many cases also involve people from industry, public service and policy makers, are conferences and various workshops. Here we co-organised the biggest yearly international scientific conference in Estonia, i.e. the 'gene forum', as well as two yearly hands-on courses.

Overall the project was undoubtedly a success. While visibility is somewhat hard to measure the 63 Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) publications clearly speak of strengthening the EBC's R&D capacity.

Project context and objectives:

Context

Estonia joined the EU in January 2004 and, therefore, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is the first in the already long array of framework programmes where the country participates from the very beginning as a member state. In synchrony with the FP7, Estonian Parliament has adopted national research, development and innovation (RD&I) programme for 2007-2013, linked firmly with financial planning of EU structural funds. Whereas the national RD&I programme has established priority directions in R&D for Estonia, it also defined instruments and indicated resources to be used and milestones to be achieved.

Outlined above background and specifically the use of EU structural funds, allows identifying major shift in the strategic priorities in the Estonian R&D. Though further improvement and updating of its infrastructure will remain high in the everyday agenda, a notable step forward has been taken during the past few years. EU funding through the structural funds has made this possible. Today we see several key objects of the Estonian R&D infrastructure, either ready and equipped or under construction. From the position of a research institute like EBC, it has been quite a radical change, because it allowed concentrating fully to human capital development in order to raise the quality of R&D, being thus complementary to EU cohesion policy actions for Estonia. Monitoring performance of Estonian research community in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) showed that though the 'genomics for health' block did comparatively well in FP6, it lagged seriously behind in per capita level from the performance, achieved by many old member states, including our Scandinavian neighbours. Our experience showed unequivocally that successful participation in FPs depended first and foremost from the presence of internationally recognised group leaders, supported by at least minimal teams of trained younger collaborators. With infrastructure to be largely radically upgraded within the next few years using different national and European Community (EC) resources, the conceptual basis of our project lied in the commitment to human resources development using various instruments, in order to show that high-class research and developmental work can be done in our field in Estonia as well - provided that the other research institutions in the EU and outside are not seen primarily as competitors but first of all as partners in high-class R&D projects. In particular in those, where the state-of-art addressing of national societal and technological needs is clearly beyond of the capacity of one institution or even country and the added value can be generated only by international collaboration.

Objectives

There were two main long-term goals that we moved towards through this project. Firstly we pursued for networking of the EBC with centres of excellence in research in the EU and beyond via joint research and training activities, including exchange of students and research personnel. Secondly we aimed to address our human capital building for research and development in genomics. Here, in addition to strictly our - EBC - personnel, we keep a wider context including also the needs of the growing Estonian Genome Centre of the Tartu University. This is because the two organisations together with the bioinformatics department of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology of the University of Tartu form the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Genomics (see http://genomics.ebc.ee/) funded from the EU's Regional Development Fund. EBC is the leading partner of the CoE.

Understandably movement towards both of these long-term goals is not limited to this project, not temporally nor activities wise. This project is one of the means for the EBC in its steady push towards the goals. That said it has to be stressed that the specific objectives we set out to achieve through the activities built into a coherent set of the six work packages (WPs) of this project, were all directly verifiable during the progress of the project. Our plans in developing of strategic partnership with well-established research groups elsewhere in the EU are directly and objectively measurable not just by short-term and long-term visits and workshops (those are really means, not results), but first and foremost by:

1. joint international publications
2. joint participation in FP7 projects
3. any common bi- or multidirectional projects and programmes within the European Research Area (ERA), but outside FP7
4. the extent of flow of researchers, in particular young researchers, between EBC and the partner institutions.

More specific aspects of our objectives, like the repatriation scheme and mobilizing unused human resources, produced impact that was also directly measurable, including their effect to the fulfilment of the mentioned above indicators. The impact of the measures undertaken was immediate in a sense that it was quantifiable within the time frame of the project. Of course the full scientific impact of the project is fully realised within a few years.

Project results:

The project was organised into six WPs. Although overall all the WPs streamed toward the general goals described above, it is still worthwhile to look at the results of all the WPs separately.

WP1

The first WP addressed our intellectual capacity. More clearly, we bear here in mind discovering hidden, underused and otherwise potentially lost intellectual capital - i.e. scientists, who for that or another reason, are either professionally 'underused' or simply not here.

Here we identified two target groups. The first are women scientists returning from maternity leave. After having stayed away from active research for a considerable time period it is understandably difficult to get back on track into competitive science. We therefore introduced here in WP1 what we call WIS grants. These grants were neither salaries nor stipends. Instead applicants wrote a grant proposal where they devised a work plan of their own. This may include attending conferences, hands-on courses, purchasing textbooks, study visits or similar. Successful applicants received EUR 10 000 to carry out the work plan. Altogether six such grants were planned and issued through two open calls in October 2008 and 2009. The awardees have since attended conferences and courses, bought textbooks and stayed as a guest scientist in labs abroad. Perhaps the most direct impact of this action is that the WIS awardees have published four ISI research papers during the project.

The second target group is potential repatriates. We aimed to attract back promising young and experienced researchers of Estonian origin doing their research abroad. We planned four repatriation grants with personnel costs of EUR 30 600 each. Three grants were issued to carefully selected candidates. All have been successful and impact can be measured in five published scientific (ISI) research papers and perhaps even more importantly in emerging new research groups in the EBC (including CoE in genomics). The latter are manifested in attracting additional research funding and supervisions of (PhD) students.

WP2

The activities of WP2 were perhaps most traditional means for strengthening ones human potential and research capacity. That is know-how transfer through short and medium term outward mobility of our researchers, especially post-doctoral fellows and PhD students. We financed six post-doctoral fellowships. Our young scientists spent some valuable research-time in Universities of Oxford, Tampere, Bristol, Edinburgh and Sanger Institute in Hinxton. All these postdoctoral researchers gained knowhow in vital to the EBC areas of knowledge. The projects were expected to result in increased know-how transfer and increasing collaboration between the institutions manifested in joint publications. Indeed, we can report of six published papers and three submitted manuscripts.

WP3

In this WP we opened six junior (PhD and postdoctoral level) and two senior researcher positions within the centre to the European academic community. The positions were planned for one (or two) year(s) each with prolonging made possible from other resources. This WP has had a tremendous impact on the research activities in the EBC. It has provided us with flexibility to react to interesting international scientific challenges swiftly and successfully. Over the course of the project we can count 12 research papers published in ISI journals (including Nature) that have been co-authored by young researchers from abroad who have taken the positions made available in the EBC through this WP.

WP4

This WP aimed to establishing twinning schemes between the EBC and well-established research groups from abroad. We were not looking forward for short bilateral projects but for common programs where the lasting partnership would allow a much more powerful approach, including seeking for the participation in calls under FPs.

The specific actions under this WP included over 30 study visits with a duration of 5 to 20 days. These study visits meant either a visit of EBC employed researchers to a partner research institution abroad or indeed the other way around, visits of foreign researchers to the EBC. In addition to study visits we organised two brainstorm meetings.

The specific deliverables of this WP were joint FP7 grant proposals and we filed in three.

The ultimate expected impact of this WP that occurs through the intensified twinning with old and new partners is increased scientific output. Throughout the project the study visits have contributed to 12 ISI research papers. In addition several new research themes have been introduced through the actions of this WP. In sum this WP has contributed greatly to the advancement of research in the EBC.

WP5

The general strategy for WP5 included promoting our in situ developed know-how through hands-on training courses/seminars and boost international cooperation and changing of ideas as well as increasing true public awareness through (continuation of) a series of high level international conferences (gene forum). The aim of the hands-on training courses/seminars was to combine here an advanced international lecture course with training in new methods, in particular where the elements of the latter have been developed 'in situ', i.e. locally. The targeted audience is mostly young scientists from Europe, while local interested parties were, of course, not denied either. Hence, in rather direct way such courses served as an advert for our know-how and potentially facilitate export capacity of our emerging biotech. We organised two hands-on training courses/seminars each year.

From the very start in the year 2000 the EBC has with the help of different EC grants been a partner organiser of the yearly gene forum conference (see http://www.geneforum.ee). We continued this valuable practice through the financial help of this project and co-organised three gene forum conferences. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of such a high-level genetics conference. The impact is dual. Firstly it contributes heavily into international visibility of not only EBC, but more importantly Estonian genetics research community as a hole of which the EBC is part of. Increased visibility translates into increased international cooperation, which is essential to contemporary competitive research. The conference also contributes significantly to the motivation of our own young generation to set the highest goals in science. We try to keep the list of international speakers of the highest excellence (see past events at http://www.geneforum.ee). The other important field of impact is public awareness. For it is ultimately the public that through the elected representatives decide over the financing of (genetics) science. Since gene forum is the biggest and most high level yearly international scientific conference in Estonia, it does make headlines in media every time and thus provides the opportunity to explain key advancements in science and their potential impact to the public in the most direct way.

All the management activities of the project are collected into WP6.

Potential impact:

The final results of the project reflect the deeper integration of the EBC into the framework of European research community. This was achieved through two interconnected sets of activities, one of which concentrated directly on fuelling the existing and creating new fruitful collaboration actions between the EBC and well-established research centres in Europe and beyond. The other centred on building our human capital through know-how transfer and motivation building. Both these activities among other results, that are more difficult to measure, produced measurable results in the number of published research papers (altogether circa 130 ISI papers during the project while over a third of them can directly be attributed to the project) and three jointly prepared FP7 and other grant applications.

On a wider scale the project has identifiable socioeconomic impact on the Estonian genetics related R&D community. An Estonian proverb says that one cannot cook a thicker soup in one end of the pot. This is true here too. Building the human capital of the EBC and integrating it more deeply into the European structures necessarily has a positive effect on the Estonian research community as a whole. Specifically we mention here again that the EBC and the Estonian Genome Centre and Biotechnology Department of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology of the Tartu University have won a tight competition for one of the seven available national centres of excellence in research. This integration forms by far the most important centre for human genetics research in Estonia and therefore serves as a platform for wider use of the specific results of the project.

A particular aspect of the human capital building needs special mentioning in the context of the wider socioeconomic impact of the project. This is the repatriation scheme by which we attracted back Estonian researchers from top labs all over the world. This approach has in the past yielded viable new research groups and professorships in fields poorly covered in the EBC and University of Tartu, thus significantly contributing to overall R&D quality in Estonia. During this project we recruited three talented repatriates who are building their respective research groups.

Speaking about wider societal implications we cannot look around our WIS grants. These grants provided promising women scientist returning from child leave a soft landing scheme to help them regain their competence and re-enter the frontline of scientific research. This scheme contributed to equality of genders in scientific research.

Another marked societal implication directly arising from the project is raising public awareness in genetics. This is achieved through high-level international conferences that among others gather local medical doctors and science teachers as audience and attract high level press attention (evening news on national television and all important newspapers). Rising public awareness in genetics is not something abstract and has direct impact on public participation in sample donor schemes and securing public funding for genetic research.

List of websites:

http://www.ebc.ee

Prof. Richard Villems, Estonian Biocentre, Director

Riia 23 Tartu, Estonia