23 Oct 2018   |   News

Excellence versus cohesion: Parliament at odds over the vision for Horizon Europe

Disagreement over the objectives of the next R&D programme and the criteria for funding research is engaging MEPs as they work on successive drafts of the law

Draft amendments to Horizon Europe appear to indicate a divide is emerging between MEPs who want the R&D programme to help bridge the west to east gap in research and those who are concerned such a move would undermine the principle of awarding grants solely on the basis of excellence.

The amendments in question envision that the programme should aim to reduce research inequality across Europe through “broad geographical coverage in collaborative projects.”

There are also moves to introduce tighter conditions for applicants to the European Innovation Council, giving priority to projects involving several partners from poorer countries, and to narrow the options for third countries that want to participate in the programme.

Poorer regions are concerned that their development may slow down because of proposed cuts to EU cohesion and regional development funds, leaving them even less able to compete against richer regions for funding from Horizon Europe. Fearing this double hit in the 2021 – 2027 EU budget, poorer regions are in favour of geographic criteria.

The proposals are included in a draft, dated October 10, of the Parliament’s amendments to the €94.1 billion Horizon Europe programme.

The text is split into different parts: shaded grey paragraphs refer to areas where the negotiators have yet to reach preliminary agreement; underlined areas correspond to issues the sides agree upon.

The draft says that particular attention “shall be paid to geographical balance, subject to the situation in the field of research and innovation concerned, in funded projects, evaluation panels and in bodies such as boards and expert groups, without undermining the excellence criteria.”

Though plans can change, the language on bridging the continent’s research and innovation gap is carried over from MEP Dan Nica’s July report on Horizon Europe.

The lead drafter on the regulation and rules of participation for Horizon Europe, Nica is negotiating the programme with designate MEPs from the main political groups in the Parliament. His office did not immediately comment.

“The overall tone of the draft amendments seems to be how money can be distributed more evenly around the member states,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. “But that sounds less like a research programme, and more like a cohesion programme.”

This push for a more even spread in EU research funding has been roundly rejected by European Commission officials, universities, and other MEPs, who believe that the way to end the research and innovation divide is through increasing national R&D budgets.

An official working in the Parliament said there have been changes made to amendments “every other day”. As one case in point, language demanding a 50 per cent reduction in the innovation gap across Europe has disappeared.

The October 10 draft also envisioned tighter conditions for applicants to the EIC, a new funder promising companies fast, flexible grants.

Proposals that “foresee” first exploitation of research results in Europe should get a higher grade in evaluations, the text says. Also, priority should go to applicants whose projects meet two of the following conditions: their research contributes to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals; their project contains several partners from the poorer “widening” countries; the applicant plans to use an EU-funded research infrastructure; and the plan would “attract excellent scientists and private partners from outside the EU”. Applications should also be anonymous “where appropriate”, the text says.

Some of these proposals, were they to make their way into the final Horizon Europe legal text, would arguably weaken the core focus on scientific excellence, several research groups argue.

The Parliament is still finalising its position. The Committee on Industry, Research and Energy is expected to vote on thousands of “compromise amendments” on November 21, followed by a vote in the full assembly. 

Options narrow for outside access

The October 10 draft also contains a slew of caveats that narrow options for outside participation in the programme, and which could make the programme less attractive for post-Brexit Britain

Wealthy non-EU “third countries” should have to demonstrate commitment to a rules-based open market economy, including fair and equitable dealing with intellectual property rights, but also demonstrate “respect of human rights, rule of law and democracy,” the draft says.

The original Commission proposal for Horizon Europe gives the EU a right to exclude countries from specific parts of the programme if their involvement would risk undermining the core goal of “driving economic growth in the Union through innovation”.

Parliament draft amendments are more explicit, saying that third countries – the imminent status of the departing UK – should “be excluded from the mono-beneficiary parts of the programme” – meaning competitions including the European Research Council (ERC).

The proposal would leave the UK with less privileged access to EU-funded science than countries in the European Free Trade Association – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The UK is second only to Germany in terms of the overall money received in the current research programme, Horizon 2020.

The language on exploitation and evaluation clauses and exclusion from big, attractive parts of the programme make for “uncomfortable reading”, said one UK government official who has seen the draft.

Continued UK participation has been strongly championed by European scientists involved in cross-border research projects. “If the UK can’t participate in ERC, they will question whether they should associate at all to the Framework Programme,” said Deketelaere.

There are also suggestions in the amendments to strengthen safeguards to prevent countries like the UK from getting more money out of the programme in the future than it will pay in entry fees.

The Commission’s proposal says that the entry fees should ensure “a fair balance as regards the contributions and benefits”. Parliament drafts add that this balance “shall be reviewed, reported to the Council and the Parliament, and adjusted on a yearly basis.”

The Commission should also give the Parliament and EU Council an annual summary on the added scientific value of the participation of non-associated, non-EU countries, the draft adds.

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