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European Science Foundation's Forward Look reaches out beyond the endless frontiers

Foresight within the European Research Area

European Science Foundation

The Forward Look scheme, the European Science Foundation (ESF)'s strategic flagship instrument that aims to formulate science agendas and policies with Europe's best interest in mind, has initiated and nurtured 13 foresight exercises that help develop medium- to long-term perspectives on future directions of multidisciplinary research in Europe. The instrument, which was originated from the ESF Strategic Plan 2002-2006, is currently seeking input for new topics from the ESF's member organisations and the scientific community; in a further push for continuing the contribution to science development within the European Research Area (ERA).

"This foresight format is eminent by its double nature: on the one hand it allows scientists in search for a vision beyond the frontiers of their disciplines to spot challenges and rewarding fields ahead, and on the other hand it supports research organisations to identify agendas for improving science policies on national and European levels," commented Dr. Christoph Ettl, Associate Director of the ESF, who is engaged in the selection process for Forward Look topics.

(Click for "Looking Beyond", a concise analysis of the ESF Forward Look scheme)

(Click for more information on the Forward Look scheme)

Future Forward Looks

In the development process for future Forward Look topics, the ESF has recognised the scientific community should play a more active role. In accordance with this approach a new set of selection procedures for Forward Look topics have therefore been adapted to ensure a careful choice, while taking into account their relevance at an international level.

Under the realigned procedure the five ESF Scientific Committees, embracing all scientific disciplines, as well as the ESF Expert Committees ( may propose topics that might be stimulated by their own scientific activities. On the other hand ESF Member Organisations, among them research councils, research performing organisations and academies, are also invited to put forward their topic suggestions. In the meantime individual researchers, groups of scientists or scientific societies are encouraged to propose their topics by approaching either ESF Scientific Committees or ESF Member Organisations.

The suggested topics will be brought to the attention of the Scientific Committees. If the respective Scientific Committee considers a proposal to be mature and sufficiently developed for final evaluation, the Committee will later recruit independent expert opinions. Then the proposal, supported by these evaluations, will be forwarded to the ESF Science Advisory Board. The Board will subsequently make recommendations to the ESF Governing Council which finally decides on launching the Forward Look.

Once implemented, a Forward Look resembles an interactive process by which scientific challenges and opportunities in fields of basic and translational science are explored and which aims to identify needs and opportunities for improved science policies for such fields at national and European levels.

A Forward Look requires up to three years until its final report is published. The document usually is complemented by a ESF Science Policy Briefing event in which the most important stakeholders and representatives from policy-making bodies will participate.


This strenuous but carefully planned procedure is gaining creditability from both the science community and policy makers as all outputs from Forward Looks are subjected to proper external peer review. The impact of such an approach is evident in the reception of a previous Forward Look exercise on "Nanomedicine." The Forward Look exercise has been considered as an important source of inspiration for the European Commission's Strategic Research Agenda of the European Technology Platform on Nanomedicine and has left impactful marks on the EC's Seventh Framework Programme calls.

Three of the more recent Forward Looks topics are focused on developments and challenges in the natural sciences. These Forward Looks have all included some typical foresight methods, such as scenario building, road mapping, interactive workshops or key word analysis. In the Forward Look "Nanomedicine", a SWOT analysis (evaluating the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for Europe in an international context) was used to structure the current state of affairs and future developments.

The Forward Looks' final reports, as the one on "Nanosciences and the Long-term Evolution of Information Technology (NSIT)", typically develop science policy recommendations and strategies at the European level. These reports are aware that the Forward Look is part of a broader policy-making process needing coherent and comprehensive recommendations, and their conclusions take into account the opportunities and weaknesses of the current structures and dynamics of the European Research Area. Moreover, the priorities suggested by these reports are more explicit in the sense that they are not just seen as new emerging themes but as frameworks to coordinate the dynamics of these specific fields at an international level.

In the Forward Look "Systems Biology" a plea is made to create a 'European road map' to develop the Grand Challenge on Systems Biology for Europe.

The current invitation for significant Forward Look topics, pronounced by the ESF in July 2007, is expected to initiate once more foresight exercises at the highest scientific level with European relevance.

Impacts of former and present Forward Looks

The Forward Look Nanomedicine was organized around five specialised workshops, each attended by a small group of experts, and a large consensus conference with 70 participants from science, industry, foundations and governmental agencies. The main findings are:

  • Identification of European strengths and weaknesses, e.g. existing potential to rapidly expand Nanomedicine R&D and lack of competitive edge in chip-based technologies

  • Identification of short- and long-term opportunities, e.g. the design of nanopharmaceuticals and implantable devices for improved drug delivery or nanosensing in vivo with telemetrically controlled mobile sensors

  • Setting priorities for the development of Nanomedicine-related technologies, e.g. closing the gap between the molecular and the cellular technologies and the clinical diagnostic nanotechnologies

  • Recommendations on organization and funding of Nanomedicine-related research activities

  • Proactive risk assessment for nanomaterials needed

  • Recommendations on commercial exploitation, e.g. feasibility of a European Small Business Innovative Research programme

  • Suggestions to implement interdisciplinary education and training (courses, masters and MD/PhD programmes)

Since the completion of the Forward Look there have been high impact follow up actions:

  • Inclusion of the ESF Forward Look results in the EC Strategic Research Agenda of the European Technology Platform on Nanomedicine

  • Bi-annual Research Conferences (ESF together with the University of Barcelona)

  • ESF Summer School in Nanomedicine

  • Start of the initiative European Nanomaterial Proactive Assessment of Risk (EuroNanoPAR): It will bring together for the first time a pan-European consortium with expertise in nanomaterials (manufacture, characterisation and standardisation) and the techniques needed to evaluate the potential risks of environmental, human exposure (accidental and purposeful) to the many emerging categories of nanomaterials.

The Forward Look Systems Biology was built around three Grand Challenge meetings. Its final report presents a vision of how the field of Systems Biology should develop in the European life sciences area. The result is a set of specific recommendations that aim at synergising Systems Biology efforts in Europe:

  • Development of a common European road map to invest in Systems Biology in order to achieve breakthroughs in biomedical, pharmaceutical and biotechnological research

  • Setting-up a network of European Reference Laboratories

  • Multi-disciplinary teaching programmes (including regular summer schools, courses, graduate schools , BSc, MSc and PhD programmes) that tightly integrate biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and engi¬neering

  • Achievement of cooperation and synergy between the different national and transnational initiatives in Europe (ERANets, SysMO, large scale investments of different countries, EU FP7, ESFRI, etc.)

The Forward Look "European Food Systems in a Changing World" is a multidisciplinary initiative, jointly supported by the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the intergovernmental initiative European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research (COST). At its thematic heart is food security in which food systems play a pivotal role. Food systems not only contribute to providing safe and healthy food; in a broader context they also contribute to an increasing number of environmental and societal goals. This Forward Look will develop appropriate scenarios based on the desire to produce safe foods in a sustainable and equitable way over a medium-term perspective (25-40 years). Developing such scenarios requires the involvement of both many scientific disciplines and a broad range of different stakeholders in the food chain. The scenarios activity will raise awareness within Europe about food security and other issues of societal concern and help structure the debate between science and policy in the food area.


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