Horizon Europe: years in the making, the programme is now set to start (almost) on time

22 Dec 2020 | News

Researchers react to the €95.5B deal, reflect on how we got here, and look ahead to the rollout of the programme and how it can achieve maximum impact

Horizon Europe

The campaign for a bigger and better-balanced EU research programme was long and filled with an uncertainty that was exacerbated by Brexit drama and a global pandemic. But now Horizon Europe is ready to start next year - shy of a formal endorsement by the EU Council and the European Parliament.

Technically speaking, money won't start flowing from the new programme for some weeks, because a lot of legal paperwork needs completing, Commission officials say. In the meantime, the Commission is disbursing funds authorised under the old programme, Horizon 2020.

“We have to see that this was one of the longest roads towards a seven year budget, with various complications along the road,” Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy at the European University Association, told Science|Business.

The result of that effort is a €95.5 billion (in current prices) research programme, including €5 billion that will come out of the EU’s new €750 billion recovery fund.

That is some way short of the original demand, supported by many researchers, of €120 billion, in 2018 prices - around €135 billion in current prices - but everyone is happy Horizon Europe will get off the ground, more or less on time

Mathilde Reumaux, senior policy officer at Science Europe, which represents national research funding agencies, says feelings are mixed. While happy the programme will not be significantly delayed, in terms of the budget, “we are disappointed. We were hoping for more,” said Reumaux.

“Obviously, more money would have been good. From our perspective, there can never be enough,” said Estermann. “But we have to differentiate between campaign mode and now that basically everything is sorted out.”

Kurt Deketelaere, president of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), is content with the programme but believes the parts supporting fundamental research, such as the European Research Council and the researcher exchange programme, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, are still underfunded.

There is also uncertainty around the five missions that are meant to create critical mass for research in fields of particular societal importance, including cancer and soil degradation. For Deketelaere, “The expectations are too high, the decision process too slow and burdensome, and funding too low.”

The Guild, which represents research intensive universities, has similar concerns about the balance between fundamental and applied research in the programme and funding for the missions. “It is important that missions receive support from other funds for the non-R&I components of their objectives,” said secretary general Jan Palmowski. “But overall, I have no doubt that [Horizon Europe] will still deliver excellent science.”

Reumax too shares the worry about funding for basic research and says balance is also needed within the different pillars. Within pillars two and three, which fund big collaborative projects and innovation initiatives, are skewed towards technologies that are closer to the market. But in the end, “it’s a good compromise between stability and continuity of Horizon 2020 and adaption to the new needs,” she said.

The industry is also happy the deal is done. The industry body DigitalEurope particularly welcomed the reinforced focus on technology. “Setting clear investment targets in new technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing will drive Europe’s recovery and make our economy greener and more competitive,” director general Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl told Science|Business.

Long road travelled

Lobbying for a bigger and better Horizon Europe started as early as 2016, two years before the European Commission published its initial 94.1 billion (in current prices) proposal for the 2021-2027 research programme.

At the same time European university networks, upon LERU’s initiative, joined forces to lobby for Horizon Europe. “This was very rewarding, effective and avoided internal competition,” said Deketelaere.

“I think the research community did a lot. It has been very active, very vocal,” said Remaux. “We have tirelessly asked for a bigger budget, met with many officials at EU level, at the Commission, the Parliament, the Council, discussed with them the importance of research, provided them with facts.”

The lobbyists quickly found support in the European Parliament. MEPs joined demands for a €120 billion research programme and defended Horizon Europe along the way. This November, MEPs negotiated a €4 billion top-up for the programme, refusing to accept the European Council’s July deal cutting the budget.

Estermann also claims to have changed hearts in the Commission, shifting it from the view that low success rates in applying for grants in Horizon 2020 were a sign of the popularity and greatness of the programme, to seeing low success rates as an indicator more funding is needed for excellent research. “We did a lot of work with them and they changed their communication,” said Estermann.

While the Parliament and Commission showed willingness to collaborate, clarify uncertainties and share information during the fight for Horizon Europe, the Council demonstrated “great reluctance to support research, innovation and education, notwithstanding that making the case for all of this was never so easy as in these months,” according to Deketelaere.

Next time around, the associations hope to establish a better dialogue with the member states. Having learnt the lesson, Deketelaere says the plan will be to “work closer with national groups of research intensive universities in the future, so that the messages can be brought in a more reinforced way at national level.”

Palmowski agrees there is more work to be done lobbying member state governments. “In the end we were not successful in making the case for a doubling of funds for Horizon. Next time we need to be much more successful in making the case for EU research and innovation in the national capitals,” said Palmowski.

Estermann believes that while the Council was willing to listen, internal disputes made it difficult. Some member states wanted to see the budget increase, others wanted to reduce it. In the end, Horizon Europe saw the least cuts in the negotiations, he says.

Beyond the budget, many important messages were heard. These include the need to put a substantial part of the extra €4 billion negotiated by the European Parliament towards fundamental research, and the importance of allocating the contributions from associated countries according to the instrument they benefited from. “I do think that policymakers listened to us in many important respects,” said Palmowski.

But the next fight may not be any easier. One of the main obstacles to getting heard is the fact the entire EU budget is negotiated at the same time, believes Reumaux. Everyone from farmers to researchers are simultaneously pleading their cause. “We realise we are not the only ones asking for more funding. Policymakers had to make choices,” she said. 

Next steps

With the deal reached, the first thing on the new to-do list is getting associated countries to join the programme. Switzerland, the UK, and other countries with strong research bases are top of the list.

“We need to ensure that Switzerland, the UK and other strong R&I countries associate swiftly and fully. That will be a huge boost to the excellence of the programme in itself,” said Palmowski.

Deketelaere has a number of prescriptions now that the programme is almost ready to take off. Most immediately the Commission should put a work programme and call out as soon as possible, ensuring there is no gap between Horizon 2020, the current programme, and Horizon Europe.

That should be followed by fine tuning the rules of the game through the model grant agreement, ensuring clear communication with research teams, promoting cooperation with large companies and SMEs, and making sure there are no more annual budget disputes between member states.

On a policy level, the EU still needs to put mechanisms in place to ensure research results are better exploited, and to finalise the public private partnerships, said Reumaux.

For Estermann, the next key step to increase the firepower of Horizon Europe lies in seeking alignment with other EU and national funding programmes. “What is going to make a difference - if it will be successful or not - is that one single programme will not make a huge change if it’s not connected to other funding programmes and funding sources,” he said.

Progress is needed on opening up potential synergies with other EU programmes, such as structural funds and the recovery budget, as well as other funding bodies.  “If that becomes a reality, then certainly we can be more efficient, we can make out more than the separate different programmes in itself,” said Estermann.  

Here, policymakers will have a big role to play. “The key success factor will be how they are able to look a little beyond their own remit,” Estermann said.

The digital industry awaits to see what national spending plans for the recovery fund have in store for research and technology. “We look forward to seeing projects dedicated to skills, digital infrastructure and green technologies. The digital sector is ready and willing to provide the know-how,” said Bonefeld-Dahl.

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