Horizon Europe’s second pillar needs some restructuring

A consensus has emerged on changes that would make the second half of the multi-national programme even more successful, says Jan Palmowski

March 3, 2023
A broken pillar, symbolising Horizon Europe
Source: iStock

The European Commission has just concluded its large-scale consultation on Horizon Europe. This interim evaluation will ultimately inform the developing of the EU’s next framework programme for research and innovation (FP10). But FP10 will not start for another five years. More immediately, the consultation will inform any changes the commission might make to the second half of Horizon Europe, from 2025 to 2027.

The public submissions of many of the large Brussels-based university networks (The Guild, LERU, Coimbra, CESAER, Yerun) make clear that there is important consensus emerging on key issues. To begin with, all networks underline the importance of fundamental research for the success of the programme.

Indeed, The Guild, LERU and Coimbra especially underline the value of the European Research Council, as well as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). These continue to enjoy huge and unqualified support in the academic community. This may not be particularly surprising, but it’s still important to highlight. These two instruments are working well, and it is clear that  they must be boosted in the annual budget settlements for Horizon Europe.

Horizon Europe’s second, challenge-led pillar comprises the lion’s share of the programme, with a total funding envelope of more than €53 billion (£47 billion), out of a total €96 billion. Yet Pillar II appears to be less than the sum of its parts, for five reasons.

The first is the skewed balance towards calls at high “technology-readiness levels” (TRLs). According to the Horizon Europe legislation, the commission is required to “ensure a balance between lower and higher TRL” for the collaborative parts of the programme. This is clearly not happening in calls now, which do not permit breakthrough, fundamental collaborative research from addressing some of Europe’s key societal challenges. The commission must address this issue as a matter of urgency.

Second, there is a widespread concern that new initiatives and instruments that were introduced into Horizon Europe have complicated it without offering clear gains. In particular, Pillar II’s key novelty, the R&I missions, have yet to show that they work as they were intended to.

An important goal for missions was to energise new actors in the R&I innovation ecosystem and galvanise new types of investment. However, it is difficult to see how missions have marshalled additional resources from national budgets or from other commission funds.

Moreover, application rates for many calls are extremely low, which raises questions of how the quality of the funded projects can be assured. The low R&I content of many mission calls is of concern. The cancer mission, for instance, attracts most EU R&I funding for cancer research, but while its goals of creating a Cancer Patient Digital Centre and cancer mission hubs may be valuable, this focus on new infrastructure does not leave sufficient funding for core research on the fight against cancer.

The third key concern about Pillar II is the overburdening of the existing budget for emerging political priorities. Prominent examples include Ursula von der Leyen’s initiative to create new sustainable and creative living spaces through the New European Bauhaus initiative; again, it is difficult to see what exactly the R&I content is. A different example is the European Chips Act, which aims to increase the EU’s production of the semiconductor chips it needs from 10 to 20 per cent of the total by 2030. This initiative drains money from Horizon Europe for an initiative that focuses on capacity building rather than research and innovation.

Fourth, there is widespread concern at the continued challenges surrounding the integration of the social sciences, arts and humanities (SSAH) across the challenge-led pillar. Among the recommendations that are emerging, arguably the most important is to ensure that calls are framed in ways that capture the potential of interdisciplinary research involving SSAH.

A last key concern revolves around the “pathways to impact” requirements introduced for Pillar II. Stakeholder groups warn about unrealistic expectations being placed on researchers. Instead, impact requirements must be as flexible as possible to ensure they are appropriate to the project – and to the funding received.

Finally, stakeholders welcome the association of New Zealand but register their impatience at the pace of other accession negotiations with strong non-European R&I countries. Importantly, they also use the consultation to reiterate their alarm at the lack of association of the UK and Switzerland. If the commission wants Horizon Europe to become a global R&I programme, it must step up a gear – and this must begin close to home.

Horizon Europe is the world’s largest publicly funded transnational programme and has a bigger budget than ever before. It undoubtedly funds outstanding work. But there is clear agreement in the sector that even within its existing budget envelope, it can go much further. That consensus represents an opportunity that the commission must seize.

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

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