EU Commission sketches out the route to next research programme

13 Oct 2016 | News

Director-general for research and innovation, Robert-Jan Smits outlines plans for Framework Programme 9. A foresight study is underway and a public consultation opens next month, Smits tells a Science|Business meeting

The groundwork for the 2021- 2028 EU research programme is already being laid, with a foresight study in hand, plans to develop new models of how R&D contributes to the economy, and a public consultation due to open next month, Robert Jan-Smits, Director-General for Research at the European Commission told a Science|Business meeting in Brussels yesterday.

Smits outlined the “process, procedure and timetable” of the successor to Horizon 2020, which - reverting to the previous nomenclature – is called Framework Programme 9 (FP9) for now.

A public consultation will open at the end of the month, with researchers and industry invited to share their experience of Horizon 2020. 

In parallel, the Commission has launched a long-term scenario planning exercise called the Bohemia Study, to be completed by the middle of 2017. “We have asked a group of experts to do a stock take of the different foresight studies by the likes of the OECD and the World Bank,” said Smits.

Matthias Weber of the Austrian Institute of Technology, chair of the foresight study group said FP9 should, “Come up with plans to address the challenges of the 2030s.”

The group has started to work on two scenarios. The more ambitious sees Europe and its research and innovation investment as one of the key global drivers of change in climate and energy policy, urbanisation, digital healthcare and disease prevention, and security and resilience.

The other scenario, with a slightly more pessimistic tone, foresees the “perseverance” of current trends. 

As a third strand to the FP9 preparations, Smits told the audience of 300 industry and research heads that he is tapping top economists to help make a stronger case for the ways in which research and innovation contribute to the competitiveness of member state economies. “We’re trying to crack open economic models to get research and innovation in there,” Smits said.

The Commission is setting up a panel of 12 economics experts, chaired by former director-general of the World Trade Organization and EU trade chief, Pascal Lamy. The group will base its advice on Horizon 2020 interim evaluation results and other evidence drawn from the public consultation that starts next month. It will wrap up its work by June next year.

Smits said evidence for the success of research will give his team an extra edge in budget negotiations. “Future allocations will be based on the bang for the buck we’ve gotten out of Horizon 2020,” he said.

The current programme still has €30 billion left to distribute and there is a request in with member states to get an extra €400 million in the latest EU budget review. This money would be spent on “four major initiatives”, Smits said, declining to go into further detail. 

FP9 priorities

The Commission is expected to release its proposal for FP9 early in 2018. It will then take between a year and a half and two years to clear it with the European Parliament and the EU governments, Smits said.

Smits gave some early thoughts on the predominant themes of the new programme, saying, “Questions we are getting so far include, what are we going to do with defence research?”

Germany’s minister for education and research, Johanna Wanka, has raised this priority with the Commission recently, Smits said.

Currently, EU law bans pure defence research under framework programmes, but grants are available for so-called dual use technology, research into crime prevention, security and disaster preparedness.

Other FP9 issues being chewed over at the moment include: more capacity building research money for Central and Eastern European countries; whether the Commission should continue to fund big companies; and ways to bump up international participation.

Smits said the structure of the next programme is under review as well. Horizon 2020 rests on three pillars: excellent science, industrial leadership and grand societal challenges.

There was also a brief update on the European Innovation Council, which Smits said is being stitched together behind the scenes. The need for the new Council is borne out of the feeling that grants are not always available for risky projects. “We don’t give sufficient support to the crazy ideas,” said Smits.

Money wrangling

Christian Ehler, MEP, who is to be the parliament’s main draftsman on FP9, said the parliament will propose €100 billion for the programme.

Whether the Commission can raise this much money is another question, especially when the practical headache over the UK’s role, or not, in FP9 is taken into account.

For now, Commission officials do not know if the country will have some form of associate membership like that held by Switzerland, and contribute to the budget for 2021-2028.

In recent weeks some UK government ministers have signalled they want a full divorce from the EU. However, opposition to this is gathering and yesterday prime minister Theresa May was forced to agree to a parliamentary debate on Brexit strategy, to take place before the UK government triggers Article 50, which will start the gun on exit negotiations.

For his part, Smits said he would not “speculate on the outcome”.  

In the face of the uncertainty around the UK’s position, Ehler raised the prospect that extra money can be found with some creative arm-twisting. “Politically it’s not out of reach. Member states have to admit they have failed on 3 per cent research spending,” he said. This was the target set down in the Lisbon Treaty signed by EU member states in 2002.

“Our conviction is that the structural and agriculture funding, the two biggest parts of the EU’s budget, are not going to change Europe. The conviction of politicians to keep paying into [these programmes] is not as strong anymore. Europe is getting more realistic,” Ehler said.

And, Ehler reminded the meeting, “We succeeded in a hostile environment to raise the budget for Horizon 2020.”

International competition dictates that the Commission will need to come up with a large budget for FP9 said Lino Guzzella, president of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “Singapore has just revised its research budget upwards by 20 per cent,” Guzzella noted.

Guzzella said he wants to see Horizon 2020’s commitment to excellence carried forward in FP9. “I would not want to see a disruptive change; that is my appeal,” he said.

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