Medical Device Daily Contributing Writer

Twenty states have signed up to a pilot program, brokered by the European Commission (EC), that aims to develop a coordinated approach throughout Europe to publicly funded research on Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

The initiative does not involve any new cash, but it does seek to improve on the efficiency of Europe's research in this field and to overcome the fragmentation and duplication associated with current national efforts.

It also represents the first initiative based on "Joint Programming," a new European approach to streamlining national research activities in areas of major societal importance.

Although the EC has been promoting the European Research Area – a kind of single European market for research – since the beginning of the present decade, about 85% of all public sector research funding within Europe is still awarded at national level. The EC's Framework Program for Research is responsible for only 5%, while large-scale international institutions, such as Cern, the European particle physics laboratory, located in Geneva, Switzerland, account for another 10%.

Joint Programming is intended to optimize the use of current resources – in recognition of Europe's inability to increase R&D funding substantially in the short term. Participation is on what the EC terms 'a variable geometry basis.' In other words, it's an entirely voluntary initiative.

The EC is developing a working methodology for the initiative, but it is being driven by member states, who will define, develop and implement a strategic research agenda.

"The idea is really to have the member states take ownership of this concept," Christine Ray, spokeswoman for the EC's Directorate General for Science and Research, in Brussels, told Medical Device Daily's sister publication Bioworld International. "Member states are in the driver's seat. We are the co-pilots."

Cooperation can extend from basic information exchanges to holding joint calls for proposals and the direct pooling of resources. The overall aim is to develop a shared vision of how research cooperation can, according to the EC, contribute to a better understanding of Alzheimer's and an improvement in its detection, prevention and treatment.

The joint programming approach has grown out of a review of Europe's Lisbon strategy, which aimed to make Europe the world's most "dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy" by 2010. Key to that goal was a growth in research spending in member states to an average of 3% of GNP.

Although widely considered a failure, Ray said it has helped to move research higher up the EU's political agenda, because of the benchmarking on research spending that it required member states to undertake. "Politically speaking it has given a strong incentive for member states to focus more on research," she said.