Despite the rising tide of Euroscepticism, exemplified most obviously by this year’s Brexit vote, the European Commission still has big ambitions for the continent’s science. Preparations for the EU’s ninth framework research programme (FP9), to be launched in 2021, will begin in earnest next year. And, surprisingly perhaps given recent history, it will include another couple of ten-year, billion-euro FET Flagship projects.

FET stands for future and emerging technologies, and its flagship projects aim to promote digital technologies while addressing policy priorities. In commission-speak, they are supposed to be ‘game-changing’ and ‘visionary’, with the potential to deliver ‘transformational economic or social impact’. These are lofty but laudable goals that deserve support. But, given their immense cost, the projects must be carried out in the best way. And the commission is still trying to work out what that is.

To say that the concept got off to a rocky start would be an ­understatement. The Human Brain Project, one of the two initial flagships selected in 2013, bitterly divided the European neuroscience community and had to be restructured after a painful and public showdown. And although the second, called Graphene, has trundled along peacefully, many scientists and officials across Europe ­wondered if the commission would risk launching any more. In fact, it quietly launched a third — a quantum-science project — earlier this year, without the razzmatazz of the public competition that accompanied the first round. ‘Quantum’ is considered important to the development of the European Open Science Cloud, a virtual environment for storing and sharing data, and its various security-related digital ambitions. It is due to launch in 2018.

Steering the flagships

On 15 December, member states and European research organizations met in Brussels to discuss what comes next. The meeting followed the outcome of a public consultation in which scientists were invited to submit possible flagship ideas. In the next few months the commission will settle on three or four themes; specific calls for proposals will be issued in mid-2017.

Last week’s meeting settled on three general themes, which can still change or expand. One is energy, environment and climate change; another is health and life sciences; and the third, described as ‘ICT for the connected society’, covers communications technology. Then, as in the first round of flagships, five or six winners will be given a generous grant to develop their concepts, and one or two of these will be selected for funding within the next framework programme.

Of the two dozen submissions already sent in by scientists, the ­commission felt that 14 ticked the requisite boxes of size and cross-nationality, ambition, feasibility and alignment with EU policy priorities. The most popular ideas — and these offer early clues to how the commission will frame its official call for proposals — were in health care, climate change and food security, robotics and renewable energy. No surprises there. But other persuasive concepts ranged from synthetic biology and regenerative medicine to digital humanities.

The European Commission has been at pains to consult as widely as possible.

How to choose between them? In post-Brexit, post-Human Brain Project Brussels, the mood is conciliatory towards member states. Not always fairly, the commission, an executive body, is often accused of making decisions without appropriate input from national politicians and external experts. Certainly, in the creation of its first two flagships, the commission gave academic-led consortia too much leeway to define their own management structures. This allowed the Human Brain Project temporarily to veer off course, concentrating too much power in too few hands and sidelining most of the project scientists. This time, the commission has been at pains to consult as widely as possible with the scientific community, with research bodies and with industry — and most particularly with member states.

The two suggested projects with the most support so far are ‘Future of Healthcare’ and ‘Robot Companions for Citizens’, strong ­proposals that were both finalists in the first flagship round. Future of Healthcare is a consortium led by scientists in Berlin and Lausanne, Switzerland. It aims to develop the technologies and the legal and regulatory environment for a continent-wide digital health-care system, as well as the integrated molecular and imaging technologies that will help promote the development of personalized medicine. Robot Companions is led by scientists in Genoa, Italy, and will exploit multiple disciplines, from artificial intelligence to cognitive sciences, to develop soft-bodied, ‘perceptive’ robots for those who are old and lonely; it will also design robots that can help in surgical procedures, farming and other areas.

Some at last week’s meeting said that scientists involved in related consortia should pitch a joint idea. That is not a good idea. As UK representatives warned, doing so could blur goals and create consortia too large to manage projects efficiently. Alas, the views of the United Kingdom are of diminishing importance in Europe since the Brexit vote. But the commission should think carefully about forcing such marriages — which would also prevent groups from competing against each other.

It should also assess the extent to which it will unquestioningly ­follow the views of the member states — whose national interests sometimes conflict with the broad European goals they have signed up to. Governments will, of course, lobby for money to be spent on health care and robots, which yield tangible and vote-winning outcomes. The case for massive resources for cross-national digital humanities projects — which aim to preserve shared history and culture — is a harder sell. That is why the commission must explicitly make room for them to compete when it sends out its funding call. Cooperation and shared values may be falling out of political fashion, but they remain the bedrock of the European project.