Express financing to catch the coronavirus | International

In the laboratory, between meters that blink without stopping, computers and devices, there is a discreet silence, occasionally interrupted by the beep of some device. On one of them, red in color, in contrast to the variations of gray that dominate the room, someone has pasted a piece of green tape and has written a notice in English: “Working very slowly !!!” (Working very slowly …) It is exactly the opposite of what researchers from the group led by Professor Laura Lechuga at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, in Barcelona, ​​have been doing here for three months. At the end of January, when the Covid-19 crisis had not yet been declared a pandemic, they decided to participate in the special call of the European Commission for the financing of projects to develop diagnoses and treatments. They had only 12 days to submit a proposal that included other research groups in other EU countries. They called it CoNVat.

“The resolution was very fast. It was announced on March 4 and the start of the project was on the 10. Everything has been express. They can usually take six months or more. And the time to write the project as well … for a project like this, from three countries and four teams, you have months to prepare it ”, explains Jessica Llop, project manager. Now CoNVat is one of the 18 projects that have obtained funding, and the only one led by Spain. Since March, the counter of the 12 months they have to develop a rapid diagnostic test with biosensors, capable of detecting the coronavirus in half an hour, has started to run.

“The call already explicitly asked that groups with previous experience be presented, that you have a type of technology already ready and that you have tried with other pathologies, if they were infectious better …”, says Lechuga, professor at the Higher Council for Scientific Research. It was his case. It was about adapting the “nanotrap” – a small silicon chip endowed with biological receptors – that had already been tested with bacteria, with tuberculosis or for the early diagnosis of cancer. “I don’t know from scratch. There is a rush. There is more rush in the face of society and the impact that this may have on this pandemic ”, he adds.

There is a rush in a Europe that has been caught unaware of the emergency triggered by the coronavirus, and in which the debate on the importance of investment in research and development returns, which has been in many countries one of the most spending chapters neglected during the Great Recession. The goal set a decade ago of reaching 3% of GDP in R&D spending by 2020 is far away. European average stands at 2.1%. There are countries that do not reach 1% and few exceptions, such as Sweden, Austria or Germany, that exceed 3%. Spain only invests 1.24%.

The scarcity of resources means that scientists like Lechuga, with more than three decades of experience, have to dedicate 70% of their time to seek funding, while younger researchers are forced to chain scholarships and precariousness. In Italy, researchers from the University of Milan, who isolated the coronavirus strain in the country at the end of February, were precarious. The only two senior researchers among the 15 people who make up the CoNVat project team do not have a permanent contract either.

Temporary contract

One has been hired, along with three other people, thanks to funding now received by the EU. The other is María Soler, who is in the second year of a five-year contract. In 2018 he decided to return to Spain after a three-year postdoctoral stay in Switzerland. With a 10-year career in research, his salary is now 33,000 euros a year. “This project motivates you a lot from a scientific point of view, but this does not mean that we miss a recognition at salary level, career stability … And this does not depend on one project or another but on how science is in the country, ”says Soler.

The money to finance CoNVat – which will receive 2.5 million euros, distributed among the four participating research centers: the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, the University of Barcelona, ​​the University of Aix-Marseille and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases of Italy – comes from emergency funds mobilized from the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, which expires this year. And it is now when the debate on the endowment that its successor, Horizon Europe, will have in the next multiannual financial framework, the long-term EU budgets.

The latest Commission proposal, presented on May 27 along with the post-covid recovery plan, foresees allocating 94.4 billion to the program. This figure is far from that requested by the European Parliament, the institution that financed this report. “It’s a little better than the February proposal [unos 81.000 millones], but we remain in our initial position, which is an increase to 120,000 million. With the coronavirus crisis it is even more obvious that we need adequate funding for research, ”says the president of the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, Cristian Silviu Busoi, the Romanian conservative MEP. “It is not the only program that falls short of what is proposed by Parliament, there are others such as the space program, but it is the one that should now be the flagship,” says the Spaniard and also a member of this committee Lina Gálvez, from the socialist group. “In the Spanish case, the program has not only contributed to the financing of the scientific system, but also to its modernization”, he adds.

In laboratories participating in the race to fight the pandemic, the fear is that when the emergency passes, this urgent need to increase investment in science will no longer be obvious. It is also the fear that the researcher Soler has: “You are very happy that research work is now recognized so much and given such importance. But at the same time you say: we were there before … I hope this recognition does not wane and in a year they will forget about us again ”.