Horizon Europe must find its equilibrium

A number of competing priorities are on the table as European lawmakers decide on the next phase of the continent’s research funding programme, but finding the right balance among them is crucial, says Jan Palmowski

October 15, 2018
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As the European Parliament and the Council of the EU discuss their position on the European Commission’s proposal for the Horizon Europe programme, tough choices have to be made. The budget of €100 billion for 2021-27 is large, but the general consensus is that it is not large enough to compete with the world’s biggest funders. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, fund science to the tune of $36 billion per year.

The question before the European Parliament and the Council, as they assess Horizon Europe, is what should be prioritised, given that resources are scarce.

Research v innovation

Horizon has brought research and innovation together into one programme, but at its last meeting on 28 September, the council made it clear that it considers Horizon Europe a programme for research first and foremost. 

By contrast, the commission has been particularly concerned that Europe is a global leader in the production of knowledge, but that it lags in innovation. For instance, the number of fast-growing start-ups in the EU is five times lower than in the US. This is also the case for the amount of available venture capital. 

This concern has driven the design of Horizon Europe, which seeks to link research and innovation more closely than ever before, across all three pillars. It is important, though, to strike a careful balance between the two as Horizon Europe is implemented: Europe must get better at innovation, but not at the expense of losing our position in the global production of knowledge. 

Fundamental v applied science

The commission’s concern for Europe’s future growth through Horizon also affects the relationship between fundamental and applied research. Of course, this is a false dichotomy in many ways. At the public hearing in the European Parliament’s committee of industry, research and energy on 8 October, MEPs as well as public experts underlined that we cannot address big scientific challenges without fundamental research. 

Commissioner Carlos Moedas himself recently stated that “fundamental science must be at the core of Europe’s future”, because nobody could predict the next big invention. Yet the text of Horizon Europe gives rise to some concerns. In the second pillar, “global challenges and industrial competitiveness”, will we focus on close-to-market solutions? 

How strong will the focus on Europe’s industrial competitiveness be versus addressing cutting-edge scientific questions? And when we see the introduction of research and innovation missions in Horizon Europe, which are firmly driven by a goal to reach an ambitious outcome, what will be the role of fundamental research?

Scientists in universities have consistently expressed concern over the amount of collaborative calls in Horizon 2020 that require high technology readiness because these make it impossible for some groundbreaking scientific questions to be addressed. 

And there is little in the proposal of Horizon Europe to suggest that this would change. Clearly, for the success of missions as well as for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals, we need collaborative fundamental research to play a critical part in addressing the challenges identified in the second pillar of Horizon Europe. 

Social sciences and the humanities (SSH) v STEM

For the past seven years, there has been concern among the academic community about low levels of funding for SSH research in Horizon 2020. The question for Horizon Europe is how these subjects can make a full contribution to addressing its thematic priorities. 

First, Horizon Europe must take the challenges presented by the Sustainable Development Goals (including those that express primarily societal concerns) very seriously, and these challenges make it imperative that there is full participation of all disciplines, including from SSH fields.

Second, it will be important to demonstrate that, in addressing scientific challenges, Horizon Europe will make full use of the disciplinary range as appropriate, and that if this does not happen, there are mechanisms to correct it. And finally, choices have to be made about the relative funding for each cluster in Horizon Europe. At a proposed €2.8 billion (5.4 per cent of the second pillar), it must be asked whether the goal of creating inclusive societies is receiving enough attention. 

One of the fundamental difficulties of engaging in the commission’s Horizon Europe proposal is that so many of its core features – missions, the European Innovation Council, and the interdisciplinarity of clusters – are still barely defined. 

This, of course, has presented a fundamental challenge to the European Parliament and the Council: both have expressed a desire to fast-track a decision on Horizon Europe in order to provide certainty and to send a signal about the importance of science and innovation for Europe’s future. 

However, what are they actually approving when so many details are still to be decided? 

The commission, in response, proposes a new way of establishing priorities for Horizon Europe, through a regular strategic programming process. This would invite citizens, legislators, scientists and any other interested organisations, to participate in the co-creation of Horizon Europe’s strategic priorities. 

How that will work, and what formal procedures will be used, has not yet been announced. But in the political decision-making and in the strategic planning process, one priority must take centre stage: that Horizon Europe is informed by cutting-edge scientific questions, and that it empowers scientists to address these with the full range of our knowledge, across all relevant disciplines. 

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

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Reader's comments (1)

The program Horizon Europe really is the strategic direction. Not only the future of the higher education and science of all continental Europe, as well as safety depends on its realization. Europe intends to take over the lead in the sphere of the higher education and science.

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