'Don’t tell me Horizon 2020 is a science programme. It’s a social programme'

02 Feb 2017 | Viewpoint
The EU’s €79B research programme is not set up to generate innovation, UK clean tech entrepreneur Michael Liebreich tells an audience in Brussels

Three years in, and Horizon 2020 has not achieved anything that can be recognised as a scientific breakthrough, nor is it set up to achieve innovation, according to one of Europe’s leading clean tech entrepreneurs, Michael Liebreich.

“It is social policy – it’s about integration and not about science,” said Liebreich, during a scathing broadside delivered at a conference on climate change in Brussels on Wednesday.

“I look at the spending in Horizon 2020 [and] I’m trying to see what the benefits are. But I just can’t see its outputs,” Liebreich said. “When I look through the things it funds, I see a lot of [scoping] studies, calls that would interest management consultancies and coordinating functions.”

Liebreich, who according to his LinkedIn page is “right approximately 70 per cent of the time”, is the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a company he set up to promote the transition away from fossil fuels by providing financial information about the emerging world of clean technology.

Five years after its foundation in 2004, the financial information group Bloomberg bought New Energy Finance in a deal believed to be worth more than £45 million. Liebreich remains as chairman of the board and is also a board member of Transport for London and a visiting professor at Imperial College’s Energy Futures Lab.

Liebrich’s invitation to speak at the conference, hosted by the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, came from British MEP Daniel Hannan, seen by many as one of the key influencing figures behind the UK’s Brexit vote.

Like Hannan, Liebreich does not betray a great love for the EU, and has similarly dismissed Horizon 2020 in the past. For Liebreich, the insistence on collaboration in Horizon 2020 projects is about driving EU integration, not funding the most promising science.

In a comment piece published in The Guardian last May, in which he argued that environmentalists should vote for Brexit, Liebreich said, “The rules to apply for Horizon 2020 money state that ‘most of the EU funded projects are collaborative projects with at least three organisations from different EU member states or associated countries.’ Why is this necessary? Is it because scientists are too stupid to find the best collaborators themselves?”

Speaking on Wednesday, Liebreich said, “Innovation funds and policies managed by civil servants fill me with dread. Remember the EU’s Lisbon agenda? Where we were supposed to become the most digitally advanced continent in the world by 2010? Well, that turned out to be a complete pile of whatever you want to call it.”

Europe is much slower on innovation than the rest of the rest of the world, Liebreich said. “The EU studies supercomputers, while China goes and builds them.”  

Liebreich is no climate change denier, but he favours the free market over government to successfully address the problem. As one case in point, he says the US billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has made a greater contribution to greening the planet than anyone else.

“Who in transportation has done more to innovate on transport? Is it policymakers or Elon Musk? He made the weather in the car industry and everyone is catching up with him,” said Liebreich.

However, he failed to acknowledge the tax breaks Musk’s company, and Tesla customers currently enjoy. But when challenged by Greg Barker, a former UK minister for energy and climate change, Liebreich did concede some ground, recognising the role government standards for cars have played in making vehicles more fuel efficient and cheaper to run.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up