19 Nov 2018   |   News

In Horizon Europe, MEPs consider more money for the East, less for companies

As European Parliament committee prepares to meet, its draft legislation would take a different tack from the Commission’s original plan

A proposal to re-distribute research money away from a new tech funder towards poorer member states is among a raft of contentious amendments being finalised in the European Parliament before a crunch vote this week.

MEPs are narrowing their position on sensitive issues in the EU’s 2021-2027, €94.1 billion research programme, Horizon Europe, ahead of a vote in the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy on Wednesday.

Draft amendments dated November 16, and subject to revision in the committee meeting, envision that the EU science programme should aim to reduce research inequality across Europe by promoting “broad geographical coverage in collaborative projects” – a controversial focus for researchers who say Horizon Europe should squarely focus on rewarding the best science, regardless of where it comes from. The issue has pit rich, R&D-heavy member states in western Europe against poorer, eastern states. 

In concrete terms, the proposed amendment could see a small re-balancing of the budget for Horizon Europe. In the draft budget breakdown, MEPs propose paring back the budget share of the new European Innovation Council (EIC), which is being set up to deliver flexible grants to fast-growing companies, from 11.6 per cent to 8.7 per cent of the total proposed programme.

By contrast, the Parliamentary amendments would increase the budget for “spreading excellence and widening”, as the special aid for poorer countries is being called. MEPs say this part of Horizon Europe should see its budget share go up from 1.8 per cent to 4 per cent. And overall, the Parliament is repeating its perhaps-futile call for a bigger Horizon budget for everything – to €120 billion.

The latest amendments, which are being steered and fine-tuned by two lead rapporteurs, Dan Nica of Romania and Christian Ehler of Germany, would also offer wealthy non-EU members, including the UK, slightly improved entry terms to the programme. They would also put greater focus on research into creative industries, and social sciences. And they would attempt to expand the Commission’s role in healthcare coordination across the bloc.

In addition, they would drop some previously contentious clauses, such as an earlier proposal from Nica that research funded in Brussels must foresee “first exploitation” in the Union. This provision spurred accusations that Europe might engage in Trump-style protectionism.

There is still room for substantial change - just before or during the committee meeting this week, as well as later on when the legislation gets to the floor of Parliament.

Narrowing the R&D divide

The Nica draft changes contain a specific commitment to “significantly reduc[e] the R&I divide within the Union, in particular by increasing participation in Horizon Europe of low R&I performing Member States as compared to the previous FP”.

The amendments say Horizon Europe should pay particular attention “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.” It drops an earlier proposal to set a specific target of reducing the “innovation gap” between east and west by 50 per cent.

That kind of target language had 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. 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.

Related priorities in the amendments include reducing the pay gap among researchers and ensuring “balanced representation in evaluation panels, expert groups and scientific boards”. Funding prizes should also be awarded “to projects attracting scientists to widening countries,” the text says.

Softer focus on ‘Europe First’

At least as important as what’s in the draft, is what isn’t there any more. For instance, earlier in the drafting process, MEPs said that proposals that “foresee first exploitation of research results in Europe” should get a higher grade in evaluations. This text is missing in the current draft.

Also absent are proposals to tighten conditions for applicants to the EIC. According to amendments drafted among MEPs in October, priority was to be given to applicants whose projects contributed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals; projects that contained several partners from the poorer “widening” countries; or proposals that planned to use an EU-funded research infrastructure.

MEPs also appear to have shifted their position to accommodate better access for non-EU members. Wealthy countries with a developed research and development capacity, so-called “third” countries, have feared a slew of Parliament caveats that would narrow options for outside participation in the programme.

A new addition to the text specifies that third countries – the imminent status of the Brexit-ing UK –should “have the right to coordinate an action of the programme provided that it benefits the Union and the protection of EU’s financial interest.”

Budget changes

In the Parliament’s draft budget breakdown, the most dramatic shift of money in the amendments is away from the EIC, a pet project of EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas. A rival body, the Budapest-based European Institute of Innovation & Technology, would see a small budget increase – from 3.2 per cent to 4 per cent of the programme.

The Parliament would also clip the wings slightly of another Moedas initiative, so-called “moon-shot” missions. The draft says missions should get “a maximum of 10 per cent of the annual budget of the second pillar”. Further funding can be unlocked for missions after three years, and on the basis of “a positive evaluation of the mission selection and management process”. Missions should be evaluated by December 31, 2022 before any decision is taken on “redirection, termination, continuation of missions or on an increase” of their budget.

The text specifies that there should be at least €1 billion for quantum research under the “digital, industry and space” cluster.

Amid concerns in some member states that ordinary SMEs may not benefit from EIC funding, the Parliament is also asking for €2.5 billion for “an SME specific instrument for incremental innovation”. Additionally, a number of research and innovation projects should apply a “fast-track” logic where “time-to-grant should not exceed six months”. This should allow a faster, bottom-up access to funds for small collaborative teams.

On climate change, the draft text says the programme will contribute “at least 35 per cent of its expenditures supporting climate change” – the same target that’s set for Horizon 2020, but less than the 50 per cent goal the Parliament’s Greens were pushing for.

A health ‘steering board’

With healthcare a growing political conflict, the Parliament’s amendments would upgrade the Commission’s role in EU-wide coordination of health research and care.

For the past few years, member states have been pushing back against Commission efforts to expand coordination of health care policy across the bloc. Health expenditures now represent 11.2 per cent of EU-wide GDP – and looks set to rise further, as the population ages. These budget concerns have prompted several member states to resist Commission involvement in what they view as a national issue, and in fact there is speculation in Brussels that there won’t be a health commissioner after 2019.  

But the Parliament is rowing against that trend, calling in its amendments for the creation of a “Steering Board for Health.” This body would be comprised of 15 to 20 “high-level” individuals, and be “science-led.” Its mandate would include planning health research funding under Horizon Europe – but it could also go beyond research alone. The amendments say the board would also focus on “coordination and synergies between EU and national health programmes,” as well as “promote value-oriented health research, better health solutions and reduce inequalities.”

Culture and social sciences

The Parliament amendments provide a ringing endorsement of the importance of cultural and social research, in contrast to the “hard” sciences that have long dominated Framework Programmes. The Parliament draft says that “the European Cultural and Creative sector builds bridges between arts, culture, business and technology. Furthermore, especially in the field of digitalisation, Cultural and Creative Industries (CCIs) play a key role in reindustrialising Europe, are a driver for growth and are in a strategic position to trigger innovative spill-overs in other industrial sectors, such as tourism, retail, media and digital technologies and engineering.”

In concrete terms, the Parliament wants to carve out more attention and money for these topics. It would do so by reorganising the way Horizon Europe groups different research topics – naming one section of the programme “inclusive and creative society.” This would include funding – perhaps as much as €300 million – for a “European Cultural Heritage Cloud.” It describes this as a “research and innovation collaboration space granting accessibility of cultural heritage through new technologies”.  It would apparently complement an existing Commission plan for an “open science cloud” to federate existing cloud services used by universities and public labs across Europe. But, significantly for the American companies that dominate cloud services today, it would be a “European cultural counterpart to commercially driven cloud services.”

The amendments don’t go as far as some social science lobbyists have wanted: To create a separate budget line for their disciplines, which they say have long been underfunded. But throughout the draft amendments are several passages calling out specific social problems that need more study, including immigration, social cohesion and national identity. For instance, it explicitly calls for social research into the causes of terrorism, organised crime and “ideologically motivated violence.”  

And security research gets its own budget line under the Parliament’s proposal. It wants to see more R&D for better border protection, through research into new sensors, aerial surveillance, anti-trafficking and intelligence-sharing. And in a surprise move, it wants to insert into the security budget some provisions for protecting intellectual property. It argues that piracy and counterfeit products “cause serious losses of taxes, revenues and personal income,” and endanger European jobs and health. It wants research into new ways to tell counterfeit from real brands, and to track products in shipment.  

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