Science ministers have given the nod to the fundamental change in approach proposed for Horizon 2020, backing the plan to focus R&D on Grand Challenges, including climate change, the ageing population and food security.
This signals a shift towards more interdisciplinary research, in which the physical and life sciences will be obliged to interact and work alongside the humanities and social sciences.
A statement by the Danish Presidency of the EU claimed there is now even greater emphasis on interdisciplinarity, compared to the Commission’s original proposal. “Our focus on the grand societal challenges requires an interdisciplinary approach, which includes social sciences and humanities. In my view, this is reflected in the agreement,” said the Danish Minister for Science, Innovation and Higher Education, Morten Østergaard.
Besides strengthening basic excellent research, Horizon 2020 marks a new and challenge-driven approach towards strategic research in the EU, Østergaard said. This will be complemented by efforts to create greater synergies with national research programmes.
The science ministers also endorsed moves to reduce bureaucracy and simplify the grant application process. In particular, the changes are intended to make it easier for SMEs to apply for funding.
The agreement on the overall structure of the €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme, which will run from 2014 - 2020, is an “important and excellent result” that “further strengthens research and innovation as growth promoters in Europe,” Østergaard said following the vote by ministers at the Competitiveness Council last week (31 May).
This agreement is only the first step in getting a final political agreement. The proposal for Horizon 2020 must next be scrutinised by finance ministers who will allocate funding to specific elements of the programme, before the European Parliament gets to debate and vote on the plan.
On the day of the ministerial vote, Maria da Graça Carvalho, the MEP who is piloting Horizon 2020 through Parliament, published a report outlining changes that MEPs will demand. Amongst these is a call to widen participation for the less-developed members of the EU, which do not have strong R&D infrastructures.
Ministers acknowledged that despite some recent convergence, the situation across Europe remains very uneven, with large gaps between “innovation leaders” and “modest innovators.”
Horizon 2020 will include specific measures to help close the research and innovation divide in Europe and “unlock excellence” in low performing regions. This will widen participation in Horizon 2020, and contribute to the realisation of the single European Research Area.
“With this agreement the Member States have shown that we in difficult times stand together and are willing to take the necessary actions,” Østergaard said. “Horizon 2020 is an important agreement that will have significant meaning for European growth and development.”
In Horizon 2020, the EU is “adapting its entire research effort to the times we live in,” Østergaard added.
While the vote was an important step forward for Horizon 2020, the science ministers failed to deliver on the pledge to deliver a single European patent before the close of the Danish Presidency at the end of June. This was down to a failure to agree on the last element of the patent, which establishing a Unified Patent Court to rule on disputes. France, Germany and the UK are vying to host the court and the deadlock was not resolved.
The integrity of the patent is already compromised by the fact that that Spain and Italy are not taking part because they do not agree with the language regime, which means there is no longer an obligation to translate patents into Spanish and Italian.