ELSF – a voice for European life sciences organisations

Publiceret Januar 2002

The European Life Sciences Forum (ELSF) is an umbrella organisation recently established to give a public voice to the European life scientist community. It is a coalition of independent organisations representative or supportive of the life sciences, biotechnology and biomedical research communities in Europe with a mission to increase their visibility and impact in the public and policy-making arenas; and to advance research and to promote the contribution of scientists to European society.

The raison d'être of ELSF

Level of funding of the life sciences and of basic research, ethical issues, public acceptance of science and technology, deficit of research infrastructures, definition of research priorities and programmes tending to prescribe science output, lack of career perspectives for young scientists, disinterest for scientific careers etc… these issues are major challenges for European research, and often directly affect scientists in their daily activities. Science policy should not be based exclusively on the demands of scientists; however, it cannot be undertaken seriously without their input. In Europe this input is often minimal. On the other hand, scientists are increasingly asked to provide expert information and advice, as well as to justify their research, notably because of increasing societal awareness of the potential of research in the area of life sciences to influence their lives and environment. 

Whilst there is thus both a need and an obligation to get involved in science policy and in public debate, the life sciences research community, which is extremely fragmented at both geographical and disciplinary level without a well-established conduit through which to express their concerns, often remains silent in these debates. It is this observation that is at the origin of ELSF. The initiative came from four individual scientists: Julio Celis, Secretary General of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) and Director of the Institute of Cancer Biology (Danish Cancer Society); Frank Gannon, Executive Director of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO); Fotis Kafatos, Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL); and, Kai Simons, President of the European Life Scientist Organisation (ELSO). In September 1999 they convened a meeting of a group of leading individual scientists from different European countries to discuss theses topics and new initiatives that could be taken in order to ensure a relevant and coherent input from the scientific community. The meeting resulted in the establishment of ELSF, giving scientists an opportunity to co-ordinate their efforts throughout Europe and intending to improve the flow of information between the decision makers, society, and those who have to carry out the research. 

ELSF membership and organisational structure

ELSF was envisaged as a mechanism bringing together individual scientists and scientific organisations representative of the various facets of the life sciences. As the Forum however is meant to reflect the interests of the life sciences and not of individuals, it was later decided that ELSF membership would only be granted to organisations, and that priority should be given to European-wide structures, i.e. European Societies or Federations, to facilitate the consultation of scientists across Europe through their representative organisations. At present, other than the four founding members, nine further scientific organisations have joined, or are in the process of joining, ELSF (Table 1).

  • European Arteriosclerosis Society-EAS
  • European Cystic Fibrosis Society-ECFS
  • European Federation of Biotechnology-EFB
  • European Federation of Pharmacological Societies-EPHAR
  • European Molecular Biology Laboratory-EMBL
  • European Molecular Biology Organisation-EMBO
  • European Life Scientist Organisation-ELSO
  • European Plant Science Organisation-EPSO
  • European Society of Gene Therapy-ESGT
  • Federation of European Biochemical Societies-FEBS
  • Federation of European Microbiological Societies-FEMS
  • Federation of European Neuroscience Societies-FENS

Table 1. List of scientific organisations members of, or in the process of joining, the European Life Sciences Forum. The European Science Foundation (ESF), an association of 67 organisations (research councils, academies and funding agencies) in 24 European countries, has a status of observer within ELSF.

ELSF membership is not open solely to scientific organisations, but also to other major stakeholders like industry, patients' and consumers' organisations. The support of these influential players could be very beneficial for ELSF, provided that the mission statement of ELSF remains the agenda of the scientific community: with citizens' organisations and industry aboard the Forum would have more political weight and thus would be more influential. Patients' and consumers' organisations in turn would have a clear interest in seeing research at the top of political agendas. Similarly, industry can have much to gain in supporting the objectives of ELSF, i.e. more and better-trained scientists, and the development of the knowledge base that is essential for their R&D. It is noted in this context that in its position paper on European science, the Animal Cell Technology Industry Platform (ACTIP) lists concerns that are similar to those of ELSF 1. Furthermore, the Forum can be a convenient way for industry to talk to the scientific community. In order to preserve the independence of the Forum, it was however decided that ELSF membership would be granted to industry platforms, and not to individual companies.

To achieve the objectives of the Forum, it was deemed necessary to be professionally organised. Accordingly, a manager was recruited, whose task is to scrutinise and monitor research policies and programmes, liase with member organisation as well as policy makers and funding bodies, prepare ELSF documents, and conduct the daily business of the Forum. In order to ensure the development of the Forum during its gestation period, EMBO, EMBL and FEBS committed themselves to guarantee the budget of ELSF until end of 2003. Other organisations can become member through the payment of a voluntary contribution. Following this transitory period ELSF will be self-financing, with income generated mostly through membership fees.

The mandate of ELSF

The tasks of ELSF as outlined in the Statutes of the Forum are presented in Table 2. An essential element of the strategy of ELSF is that its activities should not interfere or overlap with the activities of its constituent members. Instead, ELSF membership must deliver added value for the participating entities, in particular through the strong political impact expected from an organisation representing several thousands of researchers and covering the whole spectrum of the life sciences. Therefore, the Forum primarily aims at intervening in science policy making and public debate through the provision of information, recommendations, the generation of position papers, and lobbying policy makers and funding bodies on issues that are relevant for the entire life sciences research community. In addition, the Forum may endorse initiatives of its members, thereby demonstrating the support of the community and contributing to the amplification of their message. Simultaneously, the ELSF will develop electronic infrastructures ("one-stop shop") to provide support service to its constituent members and, through its website, to the life science research community at large.

To achieve its mission related to science policy issues ELSF shall:

  • Provide expert information on the importance of funding research in the life sciences and of long-term, open-ended research, and campaign to expand funding provisions
  • Campaign for front-line issues related to the organisation and planning of research, including the development of research infrastructures, and the career structure of young scientists
  • Monitor and contribute to public policies and research programmes at the European level through recommendations and consensus positions
  • Work to improve public engagement with and public understanding of the life sciences, and contribute to the Science & Society debate, including its ethical aspects

To achieve its service mission ELSF shall, notably by means of electronic infrastructures,

  • Collect and disseminate information on research policies and programmes at a European, national and regional level as well as outside Europe, and assist its members when appropriate
  • Collect and disseminate information on the activities of the member organisations
  • Promote communication with the media, policy-makers, public interest organisations and other stakeholders, at national and European levels
  • Help member organisations in their communication with policy makers
  • Provide information and advice to the European Commission, European and national Parliaments, and national governmental bodies

Table 2. Tasks of ELSF as outlined in the Statutes of the Forum.

The EC and the scientific community: Tales of a misunderstanding?

The consolidation of the European unification process, resulting from its greater integration of planning at all levels, includes science. In this respect, the Framework Programmes (FP) of the European Commission (EC), though representing only about 5 % of the total public research funding in the EU, have a major impact on the organisation of research in Europe, not only via some very successful programmes like the Marie Curie Fellowships, but also because many national funding agencies increasingly design their programmes to facilitate access to EC funds for their scientists.

FPs are designed by the EC following consultation with the European Parliament (EP) and the European Research Council (ERC, Council of the ministers in charge of research in the EU member states), and are adopted by the EP and the ERC on the basis of a co-decision process. FP6, the next Framework Programme that will cover the years 2003-2006 and which is currently being drafted 2, is considered a major instrument to establish a European Research Area (ERA), an essential element of the EU strategy to reach its goal to become the most competitive, knowledge-based economy in the world 3. An early task of ELSF was therefore to enter into communications with the European Institutions, primarily with the EC and the Members of the EP (MEPs). The Forum presented them with recommendations addressing some of the major concerns of the scientific community, chiefly a career development scheme allowing young, promising scientists to establish their first, independent research group, increased support for open-ended research, and new procedures for the evaluation of proposals.

In September 2001 the EC published a Consultation Paper "Towards a Strategic Vision of Life Sciences and Biotechnology in Europe" addressed at the Stakeholders, which should result in a EU policy document 4. ELSF acknowledged the importance of this EC consultation initiative, and prepared a comprehensive response, which is available on the Forum's website. During the preparation of its response, ELSF was confronted with many scientists who proved to be disillusioned by the EC and its programmes - notably because of their lack of continuity and of genuine perspectives for basic research - and were therefore reluctant to get involved in any EC consultations. The reason for this misunderstanding between the EC and the scientific community deserves some attention.

The EC is not insensitive to the needs and recommendations of the scientific community and its proposal for the FP6 indeed contains some interesting novelties in this respect. For instance, it includes provisions for a career development scheme and mechanisms to facilitate the trans-national access to research infrastructures to palliate deficits. However, on the other hand scientists may have been mistaken to consider that the EC is a source of science funding similar to national research agencies. The EC has political objectives: on one hand, to integrate and to strengthen European research; on the other hand, to support research establishing the science base of EU policies, for instance on food safety and quality, environment… Its programmes are designed to meet these goals. Therefore, in FP6 the EC does not seeks to sponsor basic research per se, but aims at integrating it at a European level: basic research is seen as one of the components of European research. For instance, mechanisms like the Networks of Excellence will provide funds - 'topping-up money' - to encourage networking and integration of research capacities at a European level 2. Even though this particular strategy may be questioned, other mechanisms included in the FP6 proposal, like the financial support for the mutual opening-up national programmes, seem to be steps in the right direction 2, 5.

Towards a European Life Sciences Research Council

Given these considerations, it may be appropriate to consider the establishment of a European Life Sciences Research Council. Such a Council would not replace national agencies, which have a crucial role in maintaining national strengths and priorities, but should be seen as an opportunity to provide funding for excellent trans-European research through a flexible scheme, free from constraints. Participating countries could contribute a percentage of their research funds to the budget of this Council. Preliminary discussions on this topic have been initiated at the level of the European Molecular Biology Conference (EMBC; an inter-governmental body gathering representatives from 24 European countries, which financially supports EMBO and established EMBL), and the European Science Foundation (an association of 67 organisations - research councils, academies and funding agencies - devoted to scientific research in 24 European countries which coordinates a wide range of pan-European scientific initiatives). ELSF could be instrumental in supporting and lobbying national bodies for the establishment of a European Life Sciences Research Council, in addition to its efforts to strengthen the dialogue with the EC on issues where the input of the scientific community is essential - public understanding and acceptance of the life sciences, ethical issues, training and education, technology transfer policies etc.

Concluding remarks

Almost a year after its implementation, ELSF is about to reach its cruise speed. Missions and Statutes have been clearly defined, and communication lines have been established with the European Commission and Parliament. The ELSF website will be fully operational by the end of February 2002. A ELSF Task Group has been set up to determine the positions of ELSF. This Task Group was deemed necessary, considering the short deadlines of EC consultations and to secure scientists? contributions, but also to carry out perspective work seeing that the agenda of ELSF should not be exclusively dictated by the EC.

The wide adhesion from scientific organisations to ELSF indicates that the Forum responds to a so-far unmet need. Equally important, the EC calls for an initiative aiming at a wide, trans-disciplinary organisation of the life sciences research community in Europe, and MEPs welcome a new source of information, which complements – or counter-balances – the efforts of other lobbying organisations from industry or of activists groups. It is now up to ELSF, with the support of its constituents and of the European life scientists, to deliver on its promises, and to make it a success story.

For further information on ELSF please access www.elsf.org or directly contact ELSF.

References

  1. http://www.actip.org/manuals/PosPapAug00.html
  2. EC documents concerning the FP6 can be accessed at http://www.cordis.lu/rtd2002/fp-debate/cec.htm#proposal
  3. http://www.cordis.lu/rtd2002/era/era.htm
  4. http://europa.eu.int/comm/biotechnology/introduction_en.html
  5. Van Dyck (2001) Research in the EU: better times to come? The Lancet 357, 1465-1466.