05 Feb 2019   |   News

EU promises ‘flexible’ deals for foreign research partners in Horizon Europe. But beware the fine print

European Commission research chief Jean-Eric Paquet tells Science|Business conference he expects interest from 20-30 countries for associate membership in next research programme

Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

The EU’s biggest ever R&D programme, which will run for seven years from 2021, will offer “more flexible” entry terms for foreign countries, the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation said Tuesday.

Successive EU R&D programmes have welcomed outside participation, but the offer of association membership to Horizon Europe, a status that allows countries to participate in EU research under the same conditions as member states, will be much wider than in the past, said Jean-Eric Paquet.

“Our goal for association is very ambitious and aimed at making it much more agile and palatable for a broader range of partners,” Paquet told a Science|Business conference in Brussels.

Already, there is interest. “I want us to be an associate member,” said Rémi Quirion, chief scientist of Québec. He was speaking for his own province but said he believes the Canadian federal government shares this ambition.

“What’s happening in the US with the current president is an opportunity for us. We need new friends,” Quirion said. “Our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, ‘Canada is back on the global scene’, and we want to play with you.”

Negotiations to associate with Horizon Europe, which will be one of the largest funding initiatives in the world for scientific research with a proposed budget of €94.1 billion, haven’t yet begun, though there have been some preliminary discussions.

The Commission is creating a new position in its research directorate, to be called chief negotiator for Horizon Europe association. This diplomat post, with the management rank of a director, would be dealing with all possible collaborations, with terms varying case-by-case. Paquet said he has not yet selected the person to hold the position.

Paquet says he expects 20-30 countries will seek association (Sixteen countries, including Switzerland and Norway, have this status already). Ambassadors of eight countries held exploratory talks already with the EU Research Commissioner, Carlos Moedas, last December. Canada was there, alongside Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and the US.

“China does not appear to be an obvious candidate” for association, Paquet said.

The country is not known to have expressed an interest in association status, but Paquet said it would fall short of meeting the required entry criteria anyway. According to the Horizon Europe legal text, associated countries must demonstrate “fair and equitable dealing with intellectual property rights, backed by democratic institutions”.

However, Paquet expects the Chinese will still be involved in parts of the new programme, so long as they bring their own funding. “The tables are turning with China – it is becoming a scientific powerhouse. Whether the broader political framework goes along with it is a big discussion,” he said.

The Commission wants to boost collaboration with wealthy countries as a way to strengthen European competitiveness in science and technology. So far, that has proven difficult.

Currently, the vast bulk of the Horizon 2020 money goes to researchers in the EU and its neighbours. From 2014 through 2017, the international share of total participations in Horizon 2020 averaged 2.4 per cent. In 2018, preliminary estimates suggest that has risen to 3.6 per cent, Commission officials said.

International participation is held down by financial and legal issues. US officials, for example, have in the past complained that the EU programme has too many legal and bureaucratic differences from similar American programmes to make a formal association work.

Some European politicians are also pushing to make Horizon Europe a “Europe first” programme, meaning EU interests should be foremost, and outside entry extremely selective.

“Europe First is a concept that’s gaining ground. But no doubt our DNA is to be open,” Paquet said. “From the outset we should not limit possibilities for participation.”

Fine print

And yet, while the EU’s stated goal is to be ‘open to the world’, the advice is to read the fine print carefully. 

Geographically close countries fear they will be left with less privileged access to Horizon Europe than they have had to past R&D programmes.

Scientific communities in Israel and Switzerland are concerned that they will be cut out of a particular raft of innovation-focused programmes.

According to the Commission’s legal proposal for the programme, “with the exception of EEA members, acceding countries, candidate countries and potential candidates, parts of the programme may be excluded from an association agreement for a specific country.”

The legal wording was drawn up in large part to allay concerns that another rich country, the UK, which wants to join the programme as an associate country after Brexit, would dominate the competition.

Paquet said that researchers anywhere in the world should continue to be allowed to apply for grants from the European Research Council, the Commission’s basic science funder. “The ERC should be absolutely open,” Paquet said.

But the French civil servant withheld his thoughts on whether the same level of access should exist for the new European Innovation Council (EIC). Both Israel and Switzerland are concerned they could be blocked from competing for EIC grants, and argue that the move would weaken European interests in the face of rival economic powers.

Future participation will also come with caveats designed to prevent third countries making financial gains from Horizon Europe, with the Commission text saying “a correction” will kick in if there is a “significant imbalance” between the grants a country wins and the entry fee its government pays.

Today, the cost of associating to the current programme is calculated on the basis of a country’s GDP, among other factors.

This needs to change, said Paquet. “It can be quite a costly contribution and it has proved to be quite challenging. We have a quite complicated bureaucratic system of rebates too,” the director-general said.

For Horizon Europe, there will however be safeguards to prevent foreign countries from getting more money out of the programme than they will pay in entry fees.

“The more you participate, the more you contribute. It’s much more flexible,” Paquet explained.

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