28 Nov 2018   |   News

EU begins discussions on Horizon Europe with eight countries

Ambassadors for Japan, US, Canada and others want more information on possible collaboration with the EU’s planned €94.1B R&D programme. R&D commissioner Carlos Moedas is preparing to brief them

EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas (centre-left) has put his plan to open EU R&D funding to the world at the top of Europe's science diplomacy agenda. Earlier this year, Moedas received a visit from Japanese minister for science and technology Yoshimasa Hayashi (centre-right). © European Union

A group of eight countries – from Japan to Argentina – are diplomatically checking out whether and how they might get more deeply involved in the European Union’s next €94.1 billion R&D programme, Horizon Europe.

On 3 December in Brussels, ambassadors of the eight countries are scheduled to meet with EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas for what’s described as an “informational” meeting. The countries are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

The group meeting offered by Moedas, follows a letter to him on March 6, co-signed by the eight ambassadors, asking for discussions on Horizon Europe.  That letter reflected concerns, sources say, that although the Commission has openly invited more collaboration with other top R&D-performing nations, it didn’t spell out how that might happen.

The diplomatically worded letter says “our countries look forward to continuing discussions with the European Commission to promote even greater cooperation in the future.”

Speaking after the 3 December meeting with Moedas, Canadian Ambassador Dan Costello called the session a “welcome meeting of minds. Commissioner Moedas underlined his commitment to science and innovation that is open to the world and his interest in broader and deeper international partnerships in the pursuit of research excellence.  As representatives of the EU’s top international partners who certainly share these goals, we expressed sincere thanks to him for convening this important discussion - particularly in advance of final decisions on the approval and implementation of Horizon Europe - to consider together new ways for us to work together to achieve this closer and more flexible cooperation, in part through greater shared efforts to promote the many far-reaching positive outcomes, impacts and benefits of our joint research.” Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Commissioner declined to comment.

In June the Commission proposed its biggest-ever R&D initiative, a seven-year, €94.1 billion plan from 2021 to succeed the current programme, Horizon 2020.

Currently, the vast bulk of the Horizon 2020 money goes to researchers in the EU and its neighbours; from 2016 through 2017, just 0.9 per cent of grants went to researchers from so-called third countries. But Moedas wants to boost collaboration with other wealthy countries, as a way to strengthen European competitiveness in science and technology. So far, that has proven difficult, with international participation falling due to financial and legal issues.

And there are signs third country participation in Horizon Europe could be even more constrained, with some European politicians pushing to make it a “Europe first” initiative.

Open to the world

At present, the Commission claims its programme is the most open in the world to international collaboration, citing collaborative partnerships such as developing tropical medicines with African researchers, or agriculture and biotechnology research with China.  

But for scientists in rich countries, collaboration with the EU can be more complicated. For instance, while a Canadian or Japanese researcher can get a collaborative Horizon project grant, they must generally demonstrate they have unique knowledge that their European partners need.

If unable to clear that hurdle, they normally need their own funding to join a Horizon project. That is something not too many non-EU researchers have been keen on doing, given budget constraints in their home countries.  And even for those who are able to put their money on the table, legal and contractual complications have deterred some non-EU universities and research institutions.

The ‘third way’ which the Commission has been dangling lately, is for rich countries formally to “associate” with the programme, meaning their governments contribute some funding and their researchers can bid for Horizon money alongside Europeans. Sixteen countries, including Switzerland and Norway, have this status already. Under the Commission’s published Horizon Europe plan, the number of associated countries could expand, with the terms varying case-by-case.

But exploring those terms further has been stymied by Brexit. The UK has said it wants to associate to Horizon Europe after it leaves the EU, but EU Brexit negotiators banned any discussion of what those UK terms might be, for fear of messing up the main Brexit deal. That meant the Commission was also reluctant to talk about association in detail with any other countries.

The result has been yet another Brexit-induced policy logjam that is only now beginning to break up. Until this month, most discussions of non-EU collaboration were limited to private, bilateral meetings in Brussels - dealing mainly in generalities.

So far, the most detailed public discussion of possible terms is in the draft Horizon legislation. It says third-country associates must have “good capacity” in science and technology, and a “commitment to a rules-based market economy, including fair and equitable dealing with intellectual property rights, backed by democratic institutions” – suggesting China, for instance, might be ineligible.

If third countries join Horizon Europe, the draft legislation says there has to be “a fair balance” between how much they pay into the programme and how much they get out. The Commission can also pick and choose which parts of the programme are involved. The European Parliament, in its proposed revisions to the draft, sweetened the deal slightly to permit third country researchers to coordinate, rather than merely participate, in projects. 

As things stand scores of questions remain unanswered, such as the specific rules for intellectual property, accounting, legal disputes, data privacy and more. Not surprisingly, all this uncertainty has been raising tempers among science diplomats. Beyond the non-EU delegates, representatives of Switzerland, Norway, Israel and some other countries already associated with Horizon 2020 have been fretting their own deals may suffer, as the Commission tries to accommodate the British, Canadians and others.

The ambassadors’ letter

This month the diplomatic wheels finally started grinding. On 14 November, the UK-EU negotiators published their draft Brexit withdrawal agreement and political statement on the future relationship, freeing Commission R&D officials to start talking more openly to other governments. Then, on 20 November, Commission staff gave a briefing on Horizon Europe to embassy science counsellors in Brussels. 

The Moedas meeting on 3 December is the next step. There, the Commissioner is due to brief the ambassadors on international participation in Horizon Europe. The ambassadors are expected to counter with their own governments’ opinions about the programme, the headlines of which were included in their joint letter in March.

In it, the ambassadors wrote that Horizon Europe – also known as Framework Programme 9 or FP9 – “should continue to focus on developing scientific excellence in Europe and, at the same time, enhance mutually beneficial partnerships with the rest of the world.”

The letter urges the Commission “to consider the systems and framework conditions that support international collaboration with our respective countries on research and innovation, allowing European researchers to work with the most appropriate actors worldwide and with the aspiration of making FP9 truly open to the world. Recognising that our respective research and innovation systems differ, this would include continued simplification and greater flexibility of programme administration, along with active support for third country participation in FP9.”

In the end, it’s an open question whether any of the eight countries will associate with Horizon Europe. For instance, US officials have in the past said the EU programme has too many legal and bureaucratic differences from similar American programmes to make a formal association work. But representatives of some top US universities, including MIT and Harvard, have been meeting with EU officials this year to urge programme changes to make cooperation easier. Of the other eight countries at the Moedas meeting, the South Africans have been most eager and, even without any formal association agreement, have already worked out several ad hoc deals with the Commission for R&D collaboration. Some, such as Japan, are looking to open more EU R&D channels; indeed, the country’s top-rated research institute, Riken, is opening a Brussels office.

Driving all these discussions is the mismatch between each country’s growing ambitions in science and technology, and the size of their budgets. In theory, working together – on supercomputing, drug development, climate science or other high-profile disciplines – could make the R&D more efficient; several studies have shown that collaborative, cross-border research tends to have higher impact.

But in practice, it all boils down to the contractual detail – and that’s likely to take another two or three years to resolve.

Editor’s note: This article was updated 3 December to reflect comments following the Moedas meeting.

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