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Focus will shift to security and greening the economy in last three years of Horizon 2020

EU research chief Robert-Jan Smits talks about the priorities for 2018 – 2020, getting the European Innovation Council off the ground and the changes coming in Framework Programme 9

Robert-Jan Smits
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The priorities for the remaining years of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme are security, the circular and low-carbon economy, boosting international collaboration and getting the European Innovation Council up and running, according to Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission director general for research and innovation.

Speaking at the Science|Business conference ‘Shaping the next Framework Programme’ on Tuesday, Smits said, “We will pay a lot of attention to security but also greening, [that is] more focus on the circular economy and low carbon economy.”

Horizon 2020 is currently behind its target of allocating 35 per cent of the money to climate action.

Another target the Commission is pursuing is to drive up international collaboration. Participation in Horizon 2020 from beyond the EU is disappointing, and whereas almost 5 per cent of grant winners in Framework Programme 7 were from countries outside the EU, this has now fallen to only 2.2 per cent.

This is partially explained by a change in the rules which means Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico must provide matched funding. But countries such as the US, Canada and Japan, operating under the same rules as before, are considerably less involved in Horizon 2020 than in FP7.

“International collaboration is not growing as we’d hoped. So we will have to roll out a few flagships,” Smits said.

Funding risky technologies

The nascent European Innovation Council (EIC), being set up to fund research into early stage, novel technologies, will get €2.6 billion over Horizon 2020’s last three years.

EIC is the brainchild of Smit’s boss, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who argues the EU does not invest enough in risky technologies that may take years to pay off.

“Moedas has a very good eye, one belonging to an engineer,” said Smits. “We have not had radical, disruptive innovation in Europe. So, it will be a different way of working; we have to see if the crazy innovators will come to us.”

Battle looms

Aside from spending the remaining Horizon 2020 money, Smits has one eye firmly set on the successor, Framework Programme 9.

A preliminary outline is expected by the middle of next year. The proposal was originally due in 2017 but has stalled amid Brexit uncertainty. Officials want to watch how UK-EU talks unfold, and in particular whether an agreement over the UK’s divorce bill can be finalised, before presenting budget goals beyond 2020, when the new cycle starts.

Smits acknowledges the task of safeguarding or increasing science spending after 2020 is “enormous”.  However, he has identified a key partner in EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger.

“With Commissioner Oettinger in charge, I cannot imagine we will see a decrease in our budget,” Smits said. “I’m convinced there will be an increase. Oettinger talks constantly about innovation and he comes from a region in Germany, Baden-Württemberg, that spends 5 per cent of [its] GDP on research."

Changes coming in FP9

There is likely to be some consolidation of budget lines under FP9, Smits said. “It’s not the case that we have too many priorities. But the feedback says we have too many funding instruments.”

One new feature of FP9 will be mission-driven competitions lasting three to four years. “They are essentially big inducement prizes,” Smits explained, giving the example of a competition to create an advanced battery. The Commission will launch a public consultation after the summer to drum up similarly ambitious, far-off ideas.

Smits could not say whether his directorate will take over responsibility for military research, following the EU’s launch last month of its first ever defence research competition. The call is offering grants for new military hardware including drones and lighter-weight armour for soldiers.

Currently, the management of this pilot is in the hands of the European Defence Agency, but there is discussion about slotting it into FP9, a move that would be controversial for many universities. “This is something for the politicians and the lawyers to look into,” said Smits.

Thank EU for the money

As member state governments review what works well in Horizon 2020 ahead of FP9 negotiations, Smits called on grant recipients to be more vocal about the programme’s benefits.

In particular need of extra attention are the joint technology initiatives, which fund research into big challenges such as cleaner aircraft and replenishing the drugs pipeline.

“There must be much more love here. I don’t see a lot of CEOs of big companies talking about their benefits,” Smits said. He joked that Airbus, a participant in the Clean Sky project which aims to reduce CO2, gas emissions and noise from aircraft, could emblazon its planes with the message, ‘Thanks for the EU money’.”

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, FP9