20 Jun 2018   |   News

How to make science diplomacy work

International stakeholders give their views on what the EU should do to foster international cooperation in research and innovation in Horizon Europe

By opening up its science and innovation programme to the world, the EU is  gaining “access to the world’s best talents, expertise and resources,” said Signe Ratso, deputy director general, DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission

Open science, open innovation, open to the world – for the past four years this has been the mantra of EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas.

To realise the first two elements of this catchphrase, the commissioner wants to make the outputs of European science openly available for all and to support scientific collaboration across the continent in a European Open Science Cloud (EOSC), and has pushed for the creation of what is trumpeted as the world’s first agency for open innovation, the European Innovation Council (EIC).

Both are due to be set up in Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research programme, running from 2021 – 27.

But what of the third element of the mantra – open to the world?

A full 80 per cent of global R&D investment, 73 per cent of scientific publications, and 70 per cent of patent applications happen outside of the EU. Given this, it is important Europe has, “Access to the world’s best talents, expertise and resources,” said Signe Ratso, deputy director general, DG Research and Innovation at the European Commission, speaking at the Science|Business annual conference on June 4.

International cooperation in research is, “an instrument of soft power” Ratso said. It supports EU’s trade and development policies.

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Read the full statements
from our speakers here.

International stakeholders at the conference debated how Europe can best foster international cooperation in research and innovation, allowing the EU to access the latest knowledge and the best talent from across the world.

Here’s a list of the necessary ingredients:

  1. Flexibility

Horizon Europe needs faster more flexible rules and procedures in certain programmes, according to Michael Makanga, CEO of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership. His organisation brings together institutions in Europe and countries in sub-Saharan Africa to fund clinical research and trials of treatments for poverty-related diseases. But progress has been slowed by rigid rules under Horizon 2020. “We can do a lot better,” Makanga said.

EU research funding is based on competing for grants through calls for proposals. But this does not necessarily fit with the support needed when working on drug development with partners in industry and government. For example, providing additional funding for promising clinical programmes requires quick decision making. “Have a space for looking at what is promising,” said Makanga.

With Horizon 2020, the EU has worked to position itself as a lead player in international research and has made significant investment in developing therapies and associated infrastructure development, including establishing large networks, Makanga noted, “It is important that this initial investment is not [wasted],” he said.

  1. Fund travel expenses

Researchers need flexibility, according to Alexander Cooke, Australia’s Counsellor for Europe, Industry, Innovation and Science. Australia has the longest standing industrial treaty with the EU – in existence since 1994 - and Australian institutions are partners in 160 projects under Horizon 2020. But EU funding for international partnerships does not cover the costs of travel for researchers and these partnerships are hindered by, “a resounding lack of small amounts of funding,” said Cooke. It’s “the biggest impediment” for those working in Australia and wanting to travel to Europe. “Give our researchers more flexibility,” he said.

  1. Devise more forms of cooperation

For Maryline Maillard, counsellor for science and technology at the mission of Switzerland to the EU, the way for the EU to foster more international research is through, “Simpler, more visible, varied multilateral forms of international cooperation, with instruments such as Eurostars-2 and GlobalStars initiative.”

Diego Fernandez Prieto, head of research and development for Earth observation programmes at the European Space Agency, suggested Horizon Europe should define more effective mechanisms for launching large coordinated co-funded activities. That would enable, “Funding and actions from FP9 and other non-European programmes [to] serve a common purpose in a coordinated manner, under a large multilateral science endeavour.”

  1. Include more third countries

Horizon Europe should also be, “More flexible in allowing third-country project participants,” said Cooke. The EU should loosen the criterion specifying that the participation of a third country needs to be “essential” to a project. Instead, it should permit ‘excellence’ or ‘impact’ criteria to govern the selection of third countries.

In addition, the rules for the selection of third countries are not consistent across the programme, Makanga noted. “I don’t understand the rules on how to be classified as an essential partner in Horizon 2020,” he said. “It’s a loophole, not clear enough, and not consistently applied throughout the programme.”

As things stand, it is easier for third countries to do bilateral collaboration with individual member states, rather than participate at an EU level, said Cooke.

Michael Leskiw, international senior contract administrator at the Office of Sponsored Programs, International Coordinating Committee, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that currently researchers in the US have to comply with both US and EU rules. When these rules conflict, US universities will not take part in EU projects. Leskiw suggested the EU should adopt a version of the Model Grant Agreement, which has terms specifically designed for universities and research institutions in third countries.

  1. Clarify rules for associated countries

Under Horizon Europe, those countries like Switzerland with long-standing association agreements should not see their terms of participation disadvantaged as the EU starts adding other international partners, said Maillard. “Keep participation attractive also to associated countries,” she said.

Should the EU decide to apply restrictions to associated countries, “The criteria should be clear, transparent and fair,” said Maillard. “[Restrictions] should be used only in exceptional cases, and for a marginal part of the programme, and should in no way infringe the scientific code of conduct or research integrity.”

EU should also avoid excluding countries because they are perceived as lacking capability. “These countries should not be viewed as though they have nothing to contribute,” said Andrew Cherry, ‎senior scientific officer at the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

For example, many African countries aspire to participate in EU research programmes but their participation is limited by their scarce resources and capacities. That is generating what Cherry described as “enormous disempowerment.”

In excluding these countries, the EU is excluding a significant proportion of the global talent pool. “If Horizon Europe is about exploiting talent, we are doing ourselves injustice if we do not empower those [whose countries] do not have the capacity,” said Cherry.

A document with the full statements of international stakeholders is available here.

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