One of the European Union’s top policymakers has warned universities that the bloc’s research priority is now tackling current-day economic and environmental challenges rather than funding curiosity-driven enquiry.
Jean-Eric Paquet, director general of the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Directorate, told university leaders in Paris: “This is not business as usual.”
The EU’s next €100 billion (£86 billion) research and innovation package, Horizon Europe, should replace the current Horizon 2020 deal from 2021.
To the concern of some universities, plans have tilted away from curiosity-driven research towards backing ideas that aim to create immediate real-world impact, like a new European Innovation Council, which Brussels hopes will give European start-ups the financial muscle to compete with US and Chinese rivals.
Speaking at the annual conference of the European University Association, Mr Paquet said that asking “what research delivers for our societies” was “very much the direction of research policy”.
There was now a “consensus” that European research should focus on delivering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, he said, a checklist of 17 aims including protecting biodiversity, making society fairer, and weaning the economy off burning through natural resources.
Horizon Europe will fund clusters of research into overlapping challenges – climate, energy and transport, for example – that need “cross-cutting” policies, he explained. “Solutions in any of these three fields require obviously to be anchored in solutions in the other two,” he said.
“This is not business as usual,” he said. “This is not the same groups of experts, or groups of stakeholders…from one framework programme to the other.”
“With the cross-cutting approach, things will be very different,” Mr Paquet added.
But he was keen to reassure university heads that traditional pillars of blue-sky research would remain a part of Horizon Europe, and were working well. “No worries, the European Research Council is still there,” he said, referring to a funder seen as giving researchers sizeable freedom and budgets to explore cutting-edge topics.
Mr Paquet also criticised universities for being “much too complacent about the innovation divide in Europe”, referring to the gap between richer countries in the west of Europe and more peripheral ones in the east and south.