The European Commission this week launches six pilots for its multi-billion-euro Future and Emerging Technologies Flagships programme, under the slogan 'science beyond fiction' (see Nature doi:10.1038/news.2011.143; 2011).
The programme is, by a considerable margin, the most expensive ever set up in Europe purely for academic consortia. The pilots have been awarded 1.5 million (US$2.2 million) each for one-year feasibility studies. Two or three will go on to win a colossal 1 billion in funding over ten years.
The science behind the flagship projects really is beyond fiction. The research is designed to address problems that we can foresee but don't yet know how to solve. How will we store the already overwhelming amounts of data we continue to generate? How can we build better, greener computers and robots? The funded projects will also focus on social or political priorities for the European Union (EU), such as dealing with an ageing society, or monitoring the environmental impact of human activities. Perhaps we will see perceptive robots built to befriend the lonely.
The funding could also be described as beyond fiction; the promised money has yet to be magicked up. The commission clearly hopes that once the projects are fleshed out, they will prove irresistible to the European Parliament and Council of Ministers who must support long-term financing. And the financing is beyond fiction too: the consortia must provide half of the funds themselves, so are relying on being able to mobilize the required half-billion euros from national research agencies, industry or other sources. That's not something that academics have much experience in doing — and, as they will discover, it's not easy to exact long-term commitments for such high-risk research.
The grand EU flagships experiment is itself high risk, but wise. There can be no real losers: all of the consortia plan to continue their work, whether or not their pilots are selected for funding by the commission. Beyond that, who knows?