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New EU report hints at post-Horizon 2020 research priorities

Boosting defence R&D and attracting more top companies to participate are among possible future growth opportunities identified in a pathfinder prepared for the high level group that is scoping the EU’s 2021 –2028 research programme

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Attracting more top global companies and boosting investment in defence are among the main avenues the European Commission could investigate as it lays the ground for a successor to Horizon 2020, according to a report examining ways of maximising the impact of EU research and innovation programmes.

The report, written by Commission civil servants and published this week, provides a foundation for the Commission’s analysis of the links between EU R&D spending and economic performance, and highlights possible future paths for increasing impact and growth.

While Horizon 2020 is a huge magnet for some of the world’s best universities, there would be a clear benefit in attracting more top companies to the programme, if the EU wants to up its game on breakthrough, market-creating innovation. “Despite early technology leads, the EU has created few companies that now dominate [] new markets,” the report says.

There is also “a strong business case for spending money more efficiently” in defence, where a lack of cooperation is estimated to cost Europe between 25 billion and 100 billion annually.

The document will be used by the high level group of 12 experts headed by former director-general of the World Trade Organization and EU trade chief Pascal Lamy, which is charged with drawing up a vision by June this year for the 2021- 2028 EU research programme.

Achieving more bang for the buck at EU-level is especially important, the paper suggests, in a world where the EU share of the world gross expenditures in research and innovation has fallen from one quarter in 2000 to one fifth in 2013.

In the same period, the EU share of world output of scientific publications dropped from one third to one quarter, and the EU share of the world's patents has gone from one third to one quarter also.

The Lamy panel will base its work on Horizon 2020 interim evaluation results and other evidence such as the results of public consultations. In parallel to Lamy’s research, the Commission has launched a long-term scenario planning exercise called the Bohemia Study, also to be completed by the middle of the year.

The findings will influence the last three years of Horizon 2020 spending, and be the weapon EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas takes into negotiations for the next EU spending cycle, beginning in 2021.

Attracting more top companies

Of 11,000 companies that have applied to the Horizon 2020 programme, only a few are considered top-tier.

“Europe could do better at breakthrough, market-creating innovation,” the report says. “The last few decades have seen the emergence of major new markets based on ICT, biotech, consumer internet, and most recently the collaborative economy. Despite early technology leads, the EU has created few companies that now dominate these new markets.”

Central to EU plans to generate more innovation from its future research programme is the creation of the European Innovation Council, one of Moedas’ biggest legislative priorities.

Its role will be to help scale up more world-class tech companies in Europe, and help innovators more easily find support from Brussels.

The Commission intends to make changes to the last two years of the Horizon 2020 programme in a bid to attract more top talent.

These will include: adopting a fully 'bottom-up' approach – so innovative projects that cut across sectors and technologies become more eligible for support – and putting more emphasis on financial and technical support for start-ups, in the hopes that they can scale-up quicker.

The innovation-creating potential of the European Research Council is also highlighted in the report: it has funded 400 proof of concept projects that bring an invention or breakthrough idea towards application.

Meanwhile, a lack of data means it is more difficult to judge the science impact of Horizon 2020 so far. “Very few publications have been published from Horizon 2020 grants, since publications tend to be clustered towards or even after the end of a project,” the report says.

Defence

The EU’s foray into defence research is a clear growth area, according to the report.  

A provider of highly-skilled jobs and a turnover of nearly 100 billion, the European defence industry already makes a big contribution to the wider economy. However, currently EU member states acquire key military products abroad, such as the US-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, pushing the EU industrial base towards “more of a subcontracting role, instead of a leading role.”

There is recognition that defence system development is both very long term and very high risk, taking many years, sometimes even decades, to come to fruition. In addition, there remains a legal question over the Commission’s role in defence research.

At present there is a ban on Horizon 2020 investing in defence, though research on so-called dual-use technologies, such as ultra-high temperatures ceramics, which can be used in airplanes or rockets, and materials for protective clothing, worn by firefighters or soldiers, is allowed.

Importance for poorer member states

While Horizon 2020 only accounts for 10 per cent of total public R&D spending in the EU, there is a strong case to be made for the way it contributes to the competitiveness of member state economies – in particular the austerity-ravaged ones where research spending has tumbled.

For example, Horizon 2020 funding represents a whopping 25.9 per cent of gross research spending in Cyprus, around 10 per cent for Malta and some 5 per cent for Romania. This compares with 1.5 per cent of Germany and France's national research spend.

However, as the graph below indicates, the poorer EU-13 member states are getting less out of EU research than they did in 2007-2013. Finding ways to boost their research and innovation capacity will remain an ongoing challenge for the efficiency of EU investment.

Flexible responder

Effectiveness does not always need to mean new scientific discoveries or more jobs, the report points out: Horizon 2020 is also nifty when Europe faces emergencies and there is a suggestion that the new research programme should not lose focus on being able to respond to crises.

Over the last few years, Horizon 2020 money has been scrambled together to help refugee scientists fleeing the war in Syria find new jobs in Europe (although the overall performance of this scheme has been questioned).

Horizon 2020 was also able to set aside 45 million to fight disease outbreaks caused by emerging infections such as the Zika virus, while in 2014 the EU invested 25 million in five projects to combat the Ebola virus epidemic.

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020

Research Strategies The next Framework Programme
In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.