Adriano Henney: experimenting with novel funding mechanisms

Adriano Henney has a medical background and many years academic research experience as a researcher in cardiovascular disease in London, Cambridge and Oxford. His interests have focused predominantly on atherosclerosis, with studies ranging from pathology, through molecular and cellular biology to molecular genetics. Following an academic career her went over to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

After over ten years at AstraZeneca where he eventually was involved in Systems Biology. Henney has been pursuing his interest in this topic, as programme manager for a major German national flagship programme: the Virtual Liver Network (VLN). In this interview he shares his views on alternative ways of organising research funding based on his experience with the unique funding and management structure of the VLN.

Unique funding structure

“[The Virtual Liver Network] is quite a unique project in a number of ways, it’s a sense that’s a sort of flagship, it’s a €50 million programme for 5 years,” Henney explains. It involves around 200 scientists across the Germany, working on 44 projects. “It’s probably the largest Systems Biology programme in Europe and it is focused on a single country rather that as part of a Europe-wide consortium,” he adds.

“We have an integrated and unified vision towards an objective of creating this model of a liver. This requires scientists to work across teams, across groupings throughout Germany and functional multi-disciplinary teams. So it’s not just individual groups working in different universities”.

But the way the project funding is structured is unique too. “The other interesting component of it is the specific ring-fencing within the funding for non-scientists, non-practising scientists, with a strong managerial experience.” He adds: “That would liberate the senior scientists and the post-docs to don’t worry about the administrative burden of the programme and concentrate to of delivery of science and that’s very very different.”

And it also distinguishes itself by bringing industry experience. “It also has focused on the acquisition, in my case, in bringing the management practise from industry to help organise and drive forward a very complex [project]. It’s not a consortium. We are working as a distributed team and to focus on how we can deliver that across a wide geographic distribution.”

Alternative EU funding mechanisms

This raises the question of whether such funding structures be applied to other pan European research consortia.“I think very strongly that if we could do this sort of things in one country… then if we could translate that onto a European scale to tackle some of the major challenges that we have in biomedicine and XXIst century healthcare, then potentially we could actually have quite a significant success.”

He also clarifies: “You could argue that what we are doing in Germany isn’t dramatically different from any EU grants… but actually it is different in particular in the focus on having a professional management recognising the complex interaction in a network of this type.” The differentiating factor from EU project is the distributed team, which is truly a spider’s web network, where teams with complementary skills come together.

Changing policy covering the way research funding is allocated may not be that simple.“Having worked on the both sides of the fence – academia and industry, I believe they’re still a reluctance to engage in applied research and that in some ways, applied research is less pure than applied science, at least in the life sciences. It’s not much like that in engineering obviously. . . The challenges we are facing in healthcare are huge … and it does require the application the best scientific thinking. And it requires much closer collaboration between industry and academia.

In that sense it’s actually asking for the best scientists to apply themselves to the problem to go forward.” He also believes that under Horizon 2020 there is a potential for strategic pre-competitive programme to emerge.“But the key element of this is really to understand what we mean by impact. And it is not enough to say, at the end of the grant this particular project would be expected to have this impact. . . I would argue should be the other way around. You should say, this is the impact you want to have. Then you structure the proposal to try and ensure that you get as close as possible to that impact.” He adds: “We need to understand and ensure an equitable distribution between this kind of applied research and blue skies research . . . We need to have an equitable approach to try and understand the balance between these things.”

Out of the box thinking

Finally, responding on whether the current funding structures at the national and EU level favour out of the box thinking, Henney concludes: “I think lot of the projects that go forward are innovative and they get funded, certainly at EU level, certainly within the research council, within the UK and across Europe. Certainly, some of the real high risks, potential high rewards innovative ideas that may be happening in industry don’t get a chance to breed simply because industry is focused on delivering to the bottom line.”

However, it may be true that “in some cases some really risky project that have been put forward that are based on ideas that have a very limited amount of primary evidence to support the concept won’t get funded.” Yet, it depends on many of things: “how well the project is written, how well you argue your case, how well you can explain that despite the risk the relative merit of undertaking something is this, and this is the reason for bring it forward, and trying to get an understanding of how you might share the risk with the funding body….The second thing, probably more difficult one to overcome, is just how innovative and open-minded their review panel may be.” It may not be that black and white.

Featured image credit: Virtual Liver Network

Go back to the Special Issue: Alternative research funding

Sabine Louët

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