The European Union is backing graphene and brains with the award of two enormous research projects. Credit: EC.

Peter called it. Last week he told us about hints that the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, was going to award big research programs to support research on graphene and the human brain. Yesterday, as expected, the EC announced the two winning projects are “Graphene” and the “Human Brain Project.” Each winner will see what they can do with one billion Euros each to “deliver 10 years of world-beating science at the crossroads of science and technology,” according to the press release. At least 15 EU member states and nearly 200 research institutions will participate in each initiative. The EC will fund directly €54 million and the rest of the one billion will come from other research programs and partnerships.

According to the FAQ website, the award has been almost two years in the making. In July 2010, 21 proposals were submitted and six were selected as pilots. The six projects, called “FET Flagship Initiatives,” received €1.5 million awards starting in May 2011 to develop an “integrated research agenda,” which included an “assessment of feasibility in scientific, technical and financial terms.” The support came from the EC’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) program. The FET appears to fall under the large umbrella of the EU’s research and innovation funding agency called Horizon 2020, the goal of which is to fund research that will drive innovation, economic growth, and jobs.

The six submitted final proposals last October, and in late 2012 a panel of 25 experts convened to evaluate them and choose two winners. The panel included scientists, distinguished professors, science and policy advisors, former CEOs, specialists on science and society, and a Nobel prize winner.

The press release announcing the winners had this to say about the graphene project:

“Graphene” will investigate and exploit the unique properties of a revolutionary carbon-based material. Graphene is an extraordinary combination of physical and chemical properties: it is the thinnest material, it conducts electricity much better than copper, it is 100-300 times stronger than steel and it has unique optical properties. The use of graphene was made possible by European scientists in 2004, and the substance is set to become the wonder material of the 21st century, as plastics were to the 20th century, including by replacing silicon in ICT products.

A story suggests that the reaction from the “losers” was mixed. Some complained that the criteria seemed to morph from the strictly scientific to giving more weight to economic impact. But, others were more sanguine, saying that they benefited from the process. The article quotes Dirk Helbing from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, coordinator of a project that was considered a front runner, who says, “We know that covert FuturICT-like projects are being started in other parts of the world,” he says. “That makes it even more important to continue our open, transparent and participatory project.”

The four runner-up pilot projects are

  • FuturICT: 
The FuturICT Knowledge Accelerator and Crisis-Relief System: Unleashing the Power of Information for a Sustainable Future
  • Guardian Angels: Guardian Angels for a Smarter Planet
  • ITFoM: The IT Future of Medicine
  • CA-RoboCom: Coordination Action for the Design and Description of the FET Flagship Candidate Robot Companions for Citizens