Under Horizon Europe, COST has reinforced its commitment to synergies with other EU programmes and initiatives including the Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA) and widening initiatives amongst others.
Participation in COST Actions consistently leads to both significant results, further collaboration and follow-on projects. Under the Horizon 2020 programme proposals submitted from COST Actions achieved a funding success rate of 39% compared to the average rate of 12.2%. In total, an estimated EUR 2.6 billion of funding was approved for COST ‘spin-off’ projects in the programme.
The networking funds provided through the COST Programme act like ‘catalytic money’ creating new synergies and funding opportunities and demonstrating a key role for COST as a pre-portal for further European funding.
The COST portal
Oral administration is the most common drug delivery route. But the efficiency of this route is determined by highly complex and dynamic interactions between the patient’s gastrointestinal tract, the dosage form and the active ingredients. The COST Action UNGAP – European Network on Understanding Gastrointestinal Absorption-related Processes) focused on a range of issues related to drug development and effective clinical treatment and resulted in the creation of an international network on intestinal drug absorption involving almost 600 members.
Professor Patrick Augustijns of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium was Chair of the Action. “The Action brought together colleagues from many different sectors: academia, medical practice, industry, and regulatory agencies,” he explains. “We started in a very informal way with several meetings in Leuven that set the seed for active discussions on future collaborations.”
Patrick considers thinking about future collaborations needs to start early in an Action. “You need to undertake gap analyses to understand what needs to be done and you need to create trust between new colleagues,” he continues.
It is also important to find people who are willing and able to take the lead on project proposals. “This is more difficult,” says Patrick. “Many people may want to collaborate, but fewer want to take the lead. This means you must select active contributors – people who can work together and realise the collaboration.”
UNGAP has been very successful in that respect with three MSCA networks approved as well as a Horizon 2020 project proposal: GeneGut. “In total some 30 new PhDs have started under the two new Marie Curie Actions born out of UNGAP,” states Patrick.
Under Horizon Europe, COST is fully integrated into the Widening Participation and Strengthening initiative. One Widening instrument is Twinning, which aims to enhance networking activities between research institutions in widening countries and top-class EU counterparts.
The COST Action MINDDS – Maximising Impact of research in NeuroDevelopmental DisorderS), which ended in 2022, has inspired a spin-off project, STREAMLINE, under a call for Western Balkans Twinning projects. The leader of one of the work packages under STREAMLINE is Dr Danijela Drakulic from the Institute of Molecular genetics and Genetic Engineering at the University of Belgrade who was the Serbian Management Committee member in MINDDS and the Action Chair, Professor Adrian Harwood of Cardiff University, is also involved in the project.
“MINDDS was a pan European network on neuro brain development which is associated with a variety of mental health issues,” explains Danijela. “Research in this area was dispersed and MINDDS looked to address this by forming a large network of institutions working in the same field. Our focus was on research, standardising protocols and methodologies, and providing a platform to share data and build patient cohorts.”
“MINDDS aimed to get everybody to do research with the same information and it was very successful. It grouped good people who were prepared to work with each other and support each other.”Prof. Adrian Harwood, Chair of COST Action MINDDS
Both are clear that the Twinning project would not have happened without the collaboration and networking under the COST Action. “MINDDS was a big opportunity for us,” continues Danijela. “It gave us the key to the Twinning project and helped to bring our science to a higher level. We are working to build up my institution in Belgrade as a regional high-capacity hub for research of neurodevelopmental disorders, so it is not just for Serbia but also for the whole West Balkans region.”
Adrian sees open collaboration as essential. “To be truly successful in collaborative research you must be open and sharing: ‘self-less-ness’ is very important,” he emphasises. “The more you help people, the more they will help you. You also need a long-term vision of where your research community wants to be.”
Synergies with other EU initiatives
European Natural Science Collections host approximately 1.5 billion biological and geological objects representing about 80% of the known current and past biological and geological diversity on earth. The scope of the COST Action MOBILISE – Mobilising Data, Policies and Experts in Scientific Collections) is to strengthen and extend a cooperative network in Europe to support excellent research and facilitate knowledge and technology transfer around natural science collections. It was also a crucial element in preparing the ground for the pan-European Distributed System of Scientific Collections (DiSSCo) project funded under the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) instrument.
Dr Dimitris Koureas of the Naturalis Biodiversity in Leiden was the Action Chair. “The Holy Grail for our scientific community is to unlock scientific information and provide everyone with the skills to be able to interact with our vast distributed knowledge base,” states Dimitris.
A COST Action was hugely appropriate to provide the networking activities required to complement activities around content and structure. “MOBILISE enabled more institutions to participate,” says Dimitris. “And this capacity building was as important for some smaller institutions in Western Europe as it was for widening country partners from eastern and southern Europe.”
MOBILISE created the connections that help realise the DiSSCo under ESFRI. “I cannot underestimate the value of the Action,” he continues. “We would not have delivered without MOBILISE. COST Actions allow huge flexibility, so plans can be adjusted to address emerging issues. The Action delivered way beyond what its funding might imply: The few hundred thousand euros of COST funding has contributed to leveraging some 30 to 35 million euros for the DiSSCo.”
The COST Action ERBFacility – European Raptor Biomonitoring Facility) is another good example of COST Action synergy with other European funding programmes. ERBFacility addressed the challenge of environmental pollution in Europe by delivering robust data on contaminants in raptors at a pan-European scale. The Action also collaborated with DiSSCo in scoping a database of frozen raptor samples suitable for contaminant monitoring purposes, linked to the broader digitalisation of European collections under DiSSCo.
“As apex predators, raptors can be key sentinels for improved management of chemicals,” explains Chair of the Action Guy Duke of Oxford University. “By establishing a robust biomonitoring network, we can provide early warning of emerging contaminants, inform regulators on the substances to prioritise for further risk assessment, and assess the effectiveness of current risk management measures.”
Over four years, the Action built a virtual ‘Facility’ involving hundreds of institutions and brought three key groups of expertise together: the people in the field working with raptors, the natural science collections (museums and specimen banks), and the analytical laboratories. “The facility offers an unparalleled network for European-scale contaminant monitoring,” says Guy.
“Several Action participants became partners in the two million euro LIFE APEX project, which has demonstrated the systematic use of chemical monitoring data from apex predators in regulatory applications,” continues Guy. “Many Action participants also collaborated in novel pan-European studies on contaminants in owls and buzzards, the latter with LIFE APEX.”
Further synergy may come from a new, 400 million euro Horizon Europe initiative, the European Partnership for the Assessment of Risks from Chemicals (PARC). “PARC is looking to develop European early warning systems, and we see strong regulator interest in the approaches developed by our Action and LIFE APEX,” concludes Guy.
- Read more about COST Action: “European Network on Understanding Gastrointestinal Absorption-related Processes (UNGAP)”
- Read more about COST Action: “Maximising Impact of research in NeuroDevelopmental DisorderS (MINDS)”
- Read more about COST Action: “Mobilising Data, Policies and Experts in Scientific Collections (MOBILISE)”
- Read more about COST Action: “European Raptor Biomonitoring Facility (ERBFacility)”