Footing the COST - framework for timber R&D

Wood Focus magazine
13 Aug 2013

Melanie Rutherford speaks to Professor Richard Harris from the University of Bath, UK, about how an intergovernmental framework is strengthening R&D in the timber industry.

Scientific breakthroughs don’t grow on trees. Behind every new discovery lies a team of scientists and crucial funding, without which some of today’s most important scientific innovations may never have evolved. Such is true for the timber industry. At a time when sustainability and environmental issues such as climate change dominate how the sector operates, R&D has never been more important.

For many years, a port of call for research institutes and wood scientists has been the European Co-operation in Science and Technology (COST), an intergovernmental framework facilitating nationally funded research across Europe and bridging the scientific communities in emerging countries. Professor Richard Harris of the University of Bath, UK, chairs a timber-focused COST project and explains, ‘There are no funds for research activities, so COST functions by enabling researchers to come together to share knowledge and skills, which is formalised through the publication of reports and proceedings’.

COST comprises a series of actions covering nine key domains. ‘Actions exist in many areas of science and for wood-based industries, the domain of Forests, their Products and Services (FPS) is the usual source of funding,’ says Harris. Around eight new actions are approved in the FPS domain each year, in addition to trans-domain proposals (TDPs) aimed at broader, multidisciplinary research projects covering two or more of the nine scientific areas.

The broad scope of COST’s FPS activities encompass:

Forestry science – addresses economic, environmental and social needs in a sustainable way. It also encourages scientific debate on the sustainable provision of forest products and services, including wood and wood products, water and soil protection, climate regulation, bioenergy, rural development, recreation and public health, habitats for wildlife, landscape diversity, carbon sinks and reservoirs.

Forests and environment science – focuses on protecting forests from pollution, abiotic and biotic hazards (including fires, storms, pests and diseases) by providing timely, reliable and accurate information on forests and their ecosystems, in the wider context of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Wood technology science – increases knowledge necessary to broaden wood’s use as a sustainable, efficient and renewable resource in existing and new applications. The FPS domain supports research that focuses on improving the properties and performance of timber to enhance its competitiveness against other materials.

Pulp and paper science – furthers knowledge of the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of pulps and its products. High on the FPS domain’s agenda is optimising the use of resources and improving sustainability and competitiveness, especially in new applications, while it also supports research into energyefficient manufacturing processes.

Bioenergy from forests research – improves understanding of the use of forest-derived biomass to meet current and future energy needs, while maintaining the forest’s ability to fulfil other important roles (such as mitigating climate change).

Biorefinery research – develops the potential of the forest-based sector to produce high-value, innovative products for changing markets and customer demands. In addition, the FPS domain considers ideas and interdisciplinary initiatives that address issues at crosssector level, such as sustainability assessment, lifecycle analysis, tourism, energy and recycling.

How to apply COST funds research projects throughout Europe over a period of four years, proposals for which can be submitted via one of two routes. While a continuous open call invites proposals for new actions across the nine domains, interdisciplinary proposals that span more than one of these areas fall under the umbrella of TDPs.

Open call submissions follow a two-stage process. Following registration, proposers submit a preliminary proposal summarising the goal and expected impact of the proposed action by a set collection date – normally the last Friday in March or September (the next deadline is 27 September 2013, at 1700 GMT+1). Harris advises applicants to ‘ensure that proposals are written in a format understandable to assessors from outside their field’. After each preliminary proposal has been evaluated, around 12 from each domain are invited to submit a full proposal, each of which is externally assessed by a panel of experts in that particular field. The best are then selected for presentation to the domain committee, with those considered to be of sufficient benefit and significance making the shortlist for approval. ‘The application process takes around six months for the initial idea, followed by a further six months if invited to make a full application,’ says Harris.

TDPs follow a separate, slightly simplified version of the open call procedure, with applicants required to register before submitting a single proposal, which is evaluated over two stages. Again, successful proposers present their case at a TDP panel hearing before a final decision is made. The next TDP registration deadline falls on 27 September 2013, with proposals needing to be submitted by 8 November 2013 (both 1700 GMT+1).

To avoid duplication of past or current funded research, it’s worth looking at the scope of current FPS actions prior to submitting a new proposal. A full list of past and running projects can be found at actions/(all). These span everything from innovative applications of regenerated wood cellulose fibres to strategies for sustainable management of Fraxinus dieback in Europe, and the development of renewable fibre and bio-based materials for new packaging applications.

In focus: COST Action FP1004
Harris is Chair of COST Action FP1004 – Enhance mechanical properties of timber, engineered wood products and timber structures. Recognising the increasing importance of timber and wood-based engineered products as sustainable structural materials, COST approved the proposal as an FPS action in 2011.

FP1004 addresses the need to improve the properties of structural wooden products to make them competitive, reliable and low-carbon materials for use in the construction of affordable buildings. ‘The scientific activities focus on increasing and consolidating current knowledge of structural behaviour of timber and connections in weak zones, and how to enhance performance and reliability,’ says Harris. Meeting these objectives calls for a scientific and engineering approach as well as coordination, to bring together what are already large-scale research domains in Europe.

FP1004 promises to deliver ‘increased knowledge on improving strengthening, stiffening and toughening techniques, modelling enhanced performance and experience in real projects, to create new opportunities for timber construction’. These intentions were formalised in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), says Harris, before work groups were formed at the start of the project. Although there is much interaction between the work groups, the topics help focus the activities in the three areas – namely: 1. Enhance the performance of connections and structural timber in weak zones. 2. Enhance the mechanical properties of heavy timber structures, with particular emphasis on timber bridges. 3. Modelling the mechanical performance of enhanced wood-based systems.

‘The work of the action is conducted through meetings, and there is also funding for short-term scientific missions (STSMs) to enable researchers to spend short periods of time working in another institution,’ says Harris. ‘Training schools, primarily aimed at PhD students, enable the experts working on the action to spread their knowledge to the next generation.’ This, he says, will serve to identify knowledge gaps in the field and inform future work and collaboration between research teams.

While Harris admits, ‘Clearly, the task of addressing these issues without actual funding is formidable, there is great goodwill towards achieving a successful outcome and FP1004 has already published two sets of conference proceedings’. The first, which followed a meeting in Zagreb, Croatia, focused on early-stage research in the fields covered by the work groups. ‘The second set of proceedings, from a meeting in May 2013 in Graz, Austria, provided a state-of-the-art set of papers on cross-laminated timber,’ says Harris, ‘and another in October 2013 in Wrocław, Poland, is providing the impetus towards creating design rules for boded rods in the next version of Eurocode’.

However, he warns, ‘It is hard, unpaid work for the participants, which is remarkable in a world where accounting for everything is the norm. Applicants should only make a proposal if they are prepared to put in a huge amount of work for no financial reward.’ But that’s not to say there is no reward at all. While Harris admits there is still a long way to go in the four-year project, which is currently at its halfway point, ‘it has already made a positive impact, and research networks continue to be created and developed’.  

With thanks to Melae Langbein, Science Officer at COST FPS, for assisting with this feature.

Further information
For further information on COST FPS and how to apply, email