London and Brussels have been sharing a rare summer heatwave. But while UK universities remain consumed by anxiety over retaining access to European Union funding programmes post-Brexit, the hot topic in the EU’s capital is what those funding programmes will actually look like.
The question of UK participation in Horizon Europe, the EU’s next seven-year programme for funding research and innovation, is beyond the remit of this technocratic discussion; however, many other key issues need to be settled. That is because, while the European Commission presented Horizon Europe as an “evolution” rather than a “revolution”, the plans it published in early June contain several major departures from the previous Horizon 2020 programme.
One of the proposals that will require scrutiny is the unresolved tension between Horizon Europe’s commitment to both investing in university-based research and supporting the industry-driven narrative that more funding is needed for commercial innovation.
This concern was among those raised in a rare joint statement by 14 European university associations, including the League of European Research Universities, the European University Association and the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities, published a week after the commission’s plans were unveiled.
The European Parliament has called for the commission to increase its proposed budget for Horizon Europe from €100 billion (£88.5 billion) to €120 billion, but the communiqué goes further and suggests a budget of €160 billion: double the budget of Horizon 2020.
It also calls on the parliament and the commission to address the need for a more equal distribution of the budget between the framework’s three pillars.
Of prime concern is ensuring continued support for the “research excellence” pillar. This encompasses the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions, which fund researcher mobility. Although the ERC’s proposed budget will increase by €3.5 billion, it will represent only about 25 per cent of the overall Horizon Europe budget, whereas it was 32 per cent of the Horizon 2020 budget. There is near-universal acknowledgement of the value of these programmes’ investment in the next generation of scholars. It raises the visibility of European research worldwide and support world-class research that has impact far beyond the academic community. They deserve a substantially larger budget rise than is currently proposed.
The second pillar of Horizon Europe, “global challenges and industrial competitiveness”, aims at supporting collaborative research with a stronger focus on innovation and impact. This will receive a major funding boost under current plans. Yet the university associations rightly highlight the uneven distribution of support across the five designated “clusters”, or themes, ranging from €15 billion for work on “digital and industry” to just under €3 billion for addressing challenges around “secure and inclusive societies”. The communiqué says that a fairer distribution would “capture the fact that they all are the most pressing challenges our societies are facing”.
The statement also warns of the need to reflect a stronger human and societal perspective in the new programme, and to stimulate links between research, innovation and education.
Horizon Europe aims to be at the service of Europe’s citizens by helping to address challenges to economic growth and prosperity. However, by following the historic trajectory of framework programmes, it focuses again on economic development driven by technology and neglects the social dimension to Europe’s major issues. Yet in 2017, the commission itself called for greater recognition of Europe’s social challenges; the current proposal for Horizon Europe should give these more equal consideration, and see them dealt with consistently across the whole programme.
As the university bodies’ statement observes: “Industry’s short-term interest should not prevail over society’s long-term benefits from Horizon Europe.” And “close-to-market activities should be complemented explicitly with [funding for] fundamental research”.
Under an accelerated timetable, the commission hopes to complete discussions with the European Parliament before next May’s elections. This makes it harder to undertake serious debate around this critical programme, but it is vital that it occurs. The commission’s proposals currently fall short of building on Horizon 2020’s success and addressing the issues that most concern EU citizens.
Gabi Lombardo is director of European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities, which represents more than 50 European disciplinary associations. Jon Deer is deputy director of the research division at alliance member the London School of Economics.