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EU funnels $2.7 billion into two “ambitious and risky” science projects

In an effort to strengthen Europe’s diminishing standing as a leader in scientific innovation and development, the European Commission recently announced awards of 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) each to two promising projects. One involves developing the new “miracle material” graphene, and the other will build a comprehensive computer model of the human brain.

The European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies program has granted the unprecedentedly generous awards to help boost innovative industries within the European Union (EU), along with Switzerland and other scientifically and industrially collaborative nonmembers.

The move comes as a coordinated policy response to critics and analysts who have pointed out that the EU trails the United States, Japan and South Korea in innovation by an increasing margin, according to a European Commission study in February 2012. The continent is also falling behind China, as the rapidly industrializing superpower turns its attention to indigenous innovation and medium and high-tech exports.

“Europe’s position as a knowledge superpower depends on thinking the unthinkable and exploiting the best ideas,” said Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for information technology, in a statement. The goal is to “keep Europe competitive, to keep Europe as the home of scientific excellence,” Ms. Kroes continued.

The two winning project proposals beat out more than 20 competitors over the two-year selection process, fulfilling the criteria of being “ambitious and risky” while providing the potential for accordingly high returns. Each offers its own scientific merits and the possibility of creating commercial value far into the future.

One of the awards went to a proposal to develop the new material graphene. Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms extracted from graphite, which is stronger than diamond, more conductive than copper, and more flexible than rubber. It is also extremely lightweight, with 1 square meter sheet weighing just 0.77 milligrams. The 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester for developing the material, which they turned from concept into tangible reality in 2004. The unique properties of the material grant it a long list of potential applications in the areas of manufacturing, consumer products and medical devices, including flexible handheld electronics and lightweight aircraft and even spacecraft.

The Human Brain Project, meanwhile, will endeavor to reconstruct one of nature’s most complex organs in computer form, in order to better understand a wide range of mental and physiological issues, including neurological disorders and the long-term effects of drugs. The project could also help to develop supercomputing techniques based on the functions and neural network of the human brain.

The European Commission said that the Human Brain Project will “collect the masses of clinical data available, mining for biological patterns, leading to new ways of diagnosing and classifying brain diseases.” Researchers will also explore how the brain employs such massive processing power while using “no more power than a light bulb,” as project team members put it. Better understanding of evolution’s energy saving techniques could lead to the development of more energy-efficient supercomputers.

The sources of funding for the two projects are split evenly between public and private sources, with governments providing half of the capital, and companies, institutes and universities providing the rest. The massive sums will be spread into installments over several years, with the first allocation of 54 million euros ($73 million) due in the next couple of months.

Each project will be headed by a single leader and coordinated between numerous groups across the world. The Human Brain Project will be led by Henry Markram, a professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, in partnership with 87 institutions including the Institut Pasteur in France, I.B.M. in the United States and SAP in Germany.

The graphene project will be coordinated by Jari Kinaret, a professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, in collaboration with over 126 academic and industrial research groups including the University of Cambridge in England and Nokia in Finland.

In the midst of austerity measures cramping spending and growth efforts across Europe, along with criticisms over the EC’s recent budget, officials are pointing to the funding as a promising generator of long-term value. The initial $73 million infusion of grants will operate as a sort of pilot effort, the success of which will largely determine how private and public investors approach both subsequent rounds of funding, and similar measures in the future.