27 Oct 2017   |   News

EU publishes new €30B research plan, and makes play to run Macron-backed innovation agency

‘Focus areas’, ‘lump-sum’ payments and studies into migration, extremism and blockchain among novelties in 3-year plan. But who will run ‘Agency for Disruptive Innovation?’

EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas published research plans for 2018 to 2020 worth €30 billion on Friday, and pitched for the Commission to run a new funding agency for disruptive innovation proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron.  

The three-year EU spending plan would conclude its big, multi-year Horizon 2020 research programme – one of the world’s largest government research efforts. It takes up about 8 per cent of the Commission budget, and about the same share of total government R&D spending across the EU.

The agency had previously published draft plans, but at a news conference Friday it said it plans over the next three years to “focus efforts on fewer topics with bigger budgets” in fields ranging from personalised healthcare and cybersecurity to cleaner energy and the root causes of extremism. The work programme sets out a number of competitions under broad themes, together with the relevant budgets, conditions, and closing dates for applications. In subsequent months, the Commission will publish invitations for researchers and entrepreneurs to compete for the money, topic by topic.

A disruptive issue

But at the news conference, several other issues arose as well, including President Macron’s proposal in September to create a new “Agency for Disruptive Innovation” from 2021 onward.  Science|Business reported on October 6 that France was looking into developing the agency into a special purpose vehicle: an “inter-governmental” arrangement, in a similar vein to bodies such as the European Defence Agency. This approach would have the strategy controlled by participating governments supported by the Commission, rather than driven and run by the Commission. The legal distinction could make it easier for the agency to perform military research, barred from Horizon 2020, or invite UK participation post-Brexit.

When asked about this Friday, Moedas said that a track record of developing and managing the European Research Council in Brussels provides a strong case for EU control of Macron’s agency. Since its foundation over 10 years ago, the ERC has funded almost 7,000 basic research projects, several of which have paved the way for major new breakthroughs.

“To be frank, I think there’s no question about it, that if you want to have something of scale, something with stability of funding, something focused on excellence. You have to do it at Union level,” the Commissioner told journalists.

“History proves us right. When you look at the experience of Horizon 2020, and of the European Research Council in particular, it works because it is exactly at the level of the Union. It’s not about countries then; it’s about excellence,” Moedas added.

Moedas has his own plan for a new agency, a European Innovation Council, to inject some dynamism into sluggish areas of the economy by targeting support for fast-growing tech companies. The first steps for an EIC are outlined in the overall Horizon 2020 plan announced Friday.

The Council, created by pulling together four existing Horizon 2020 funding streams, is targeted at entrepreneurs, engineers and researchers with ideas that are “radically different” from existing products or services.

The Commissioner said that he “doesn’t see any difference” between his plan for the EIC, which will run in pilot form next year with a €2.7 billion budget, and the agency proposed by Macron.

Fewer topics, bigger budgets

One new feature of the overall plan, or Work Programme, published Friday is a series of ‘Focus Areas’ that group together research in scattered parts of the programme – a response to frequent complaints that the programme is currently too complicated for mere mortals to understand. The biggest such Focus Area, on low-carbon research, gets €3.3 billion. Security topics gets €1 billion overall, while digital topics will receive €1.7 billion.

More than €200 million will support research on migration-related issues, such as the root causes of migration, “migration management” and integrating migrants in new countries.

There’s a new push to attract more foreign researchers to Horizon 2020, with the share of international grant winners falling as low as 2.2 per cent. The drop off is partially explained by a 2014 change in the rules which meant researchers in Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico who want to collaborate in Horizon 2020 projects must bring their own funding.

Some €1 billion will go to 30 international competitions; examples include working with Canada on personalised medicine, with the US, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Australia on road transport automation, with India on water challenges, and with African countries on food security and renewable energies.

There will also be some money to trial a limited new lump-sum scheme which would reward researchers with a pre-agreed grant and eliminate the need for cost reporting, timesheets and financial audits.

Six new prize competitions are confirmed: €10 million to develop a battery for electric vehicles; €10 million for a bench-scale prototype of an artificial photosynthesis device that produces a synthetic liquid fuel; and €5 million each for a scalable, reliable and cost-effective early warning system for epidemics; a prize for “blockchain for social good”; a prize for an affordable way of launching nano- and micro-satellites into low-earth orbit; and a prize for technology to aid humanitarian work.

Moedas ‘saddened’ by innovation progress

Horizon 2020, which started in 2014 and continues through 2020, has so far funded 15,000 grants to the tune of almost €27 billion, but Moedas still thinks Europe has to improve on commercialising radical new ideas.

“It saddens me that we are not able to do better” on innovation, the Commissioner said. “It’s where we are not doing our job properly.” According to the Commission, “while Europe compares relatively well internationally in terms of numbers of start-ups, too few of these succeed in scaling up and generating high-skilled jobs.”

Europe has a predominantly bank-lending economy rather than one driven by capital markets, Moedas said.

“We are not able to see VCs [venture capital firms] scale up new ideas. The VC average fund size in US is €120 million, but in the EU it’s only €60 million,” he said. Horizon 2020 has provided companies with access to risk finance worth over €17 million.

The Commissioner wants to see European companies move quickly to exploit a growing niche in ‘deep science’ fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, topics that will receive more funding in the next three years.  

“It’s in that deep science part that we are doing a great job, so we need to catch that opportunity,” he said.