Universities Finland: Moonshots of the 2020s

Universities Finland: Moonshots of the 2020s

19th - 22nd November 2018

Universities Finland (UNIFI) have held five events focusing on the proposed new feature of Horizon Europe, ‘moonshots’, launched by Carlos Moedas.

On the 19th of November, WRB attended “Moonshots of the 2020s: Climate, Food and Natural Resources”. This was hosted by Sirpa Pietikainen MEP and organised by UNIFI, alongside University of Turku, Tempere University of Technology, University of Helsinki, Turku-Southwest Finland European office and Helsinki EU office.

Jean-Francois Hulot, Head of Unit, Strategy DG RTD informed us that changes to Horizon Europe are responding to challenges identified by the Commission. Namely, that the EU is lacking rapid uptake of innovative solutions, and therefore that strategic policy priorities are required to tackle global challenges. The missions are just such a strategy: they are designed to make a bigger impact, encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, and capture the imagination of citizens.

Missions will consist of: ‘a portfolio of actions to achieve a bold and inspirational as well as measurable goal (cross-pillar) within a set timeframe, with impact for science and technology, society and citizens, that goes beyond individual actions’.

The idea is that citizens should be involved even in the design stage, so the Commission is avoiding prescribing exactly what the missions should be at this point. Some possible topics have been raised, though: ocean plastic reduction has been a much-discussed possibility, as has soil health. Hulot emphasised that the missions will require a systemic approach; which entails full cooperation and co-creation with member states and citizens at operational and political level. When asked by a representative from Science Business if the missions were based on the UK government’s ‘Catapult Programme’, Hulot replied ‘Why not – learning from experience is very positive’.

We then heard a series of presentations from experts in the fields of climate, food and natural resources: Eva-Mari Aro, Professor of Plant Molecular Biology at the University of Turku, Peter Lund, Professor in Advanced Energy Systems at Aalto University, Tuukka Petaja, Professor at the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research at the University of Helsinki, Jukka Rintala, Professor of Chemistry and Bioengineering at the Tampere University of Technology, John Moore, Professor at the University of Lapland, Kari Lehtinen, Professor at the University of Eastern Finland and Mari Sandell, Associate Professor at the University of Finland. Some points recurred throughout these talks:

  • It is often the case that efforts to address one environmental issue can inadvertently cause another issue to worsen. For example, there are concerns that reducing air pollution in cities, though it does improve health for urban populations, might contribute to global warming. We therefore need a ‘big picture’ approach which can tackle complex interactions between global systems
  • Bulldozing silos in science and policy can contribute to this ‘big picture’ approach
  • Solving grand challenges requires resilient research infrastructure, continuous dialogue with citizens, interdisciplinary cooperation, and crucially, open access to data
  • Digitalisation could hold huge potential for cooperation between traditionally separate sectors
  • Scientists need to find a common language to communicate effectively with those working in adaptation and mitigation and to engage with the public

On the 22 November, UNIFI and two Finnish universities, the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland, held an event on “Moonshots of the 2020s: Increasing Health Life Years”. This event was the last of the five event on moonshots organised by UNIFI. UNIFI support investing in R&I as an investment for the future of Europe, with excellence as the key criterion. UNIFI is also very supportive of Open Science and have recently launched a national Open Science and Data action plan.

There were two health themes presented as potential moonshots for Horizon Europe, one was on personalised treatment and prevention of brain diseases and the other was using predictive medicine and disease prevention.

Prof. Hilkka Soininen, the University of Eastern Finland gave an overview of the research conducted at UEF in neurodegenerative diseases, which include a number of EU funded projects. The research focused mainly on Alzheimer’s Disease covering detection, prevention, early diagnosis and treatment. A number of new biomarkers were identified that could be used for early diagnosis of the disease.

Dr Mark Daly, the University of Helsinki gave an overview of the unique health data resource in Finland. Health and medical data has been collected over many years and is accessible online. This allows research to discover genetic associations to disease, to discover novel biomarkers and to predict health outcomes. There is the opportunity to work with national biobanks to conduct this research at an international level.

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