09 Feb 2017   |   Viewpoint

With decision-time pending, opinions vary on whether to embed military R&D in FP9

As the EU new defence programme starts to take shape, the question of how it relates to civil R&D is up in the air. But European subsidiaries of US or Chinese companies are likely to be allowed take part

There is no decision as yet on whether Europe’s new defence research programme should sit under Framework Programme 9 (FP9) or be run through a separate budget, participants at a Science|Business event in Brussels heard on January 26.

Lawmakers are beginning to lay the groundwork for the successor of Horizon 2020 and hope to spend €500 million a year on defence between 2021 and 2027, the EU’s next budget cycle.

Despite it being the most politically expedient path from the policymakers’ perspective, opening up space for military research in FP9 is seen by many universities and research groups as inviting fresh competition for already squeezed grants and signalling a pronounced shift towards technology development at the expense of basic science.

“I would urge caution against mixing defence into the framework programme,” said Doris Alexander, research development manager with Trinity College Dublin, expressing a view shared by many university representatives at the January 26 debate.

There is some concern among researchers that a new focus on military investment in Brussels will threaten other budget lines – an idea Denis Roger, Director European Synergies and Innovation at the European Defence Agency (EDA), rejected. “Research priorities are impermanent. It’s good to have a kind of reset every few years,” he said. “Each period must redefine its research priorities according to the current key challenges and, presently, security and defence are increasing concerns for EU citizens”.

However, there is some support for defence R&D to be under the same umbrella as its civil counterpart, with Ana Gomes, Portuguese centre-left MEP saying, “If we can run defence through FP9, that would be best.”

Talks over future military research spending should result in a decision next year.

In the meantime, a defence research preparatory action, set to receive a total of €90 million funding between 2017-2020, is gearing up to launch. This preparatory action, which will act as a test-run for ramped up future defence spending, is expected to be managed by EDA.

Access to the programme is likely to be limited to EU members – and potentially Norway. Denmark chooses to opt out of EU defence cooperation, but its industry and researchers will be permitted access to the preparatory action.

The EU is not likely to prevent the European subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies from bidding for funding, so long as the research is carried out on EU soil. This means that Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, for example, would be allowed bid, because it runs a research institute in Leuven.

That signals a more open approach than in other countries such as the US where, for reasons of political sensitivity, certain foreign companies are barred from bidding for government contracts. However, there are likely to be restrictions on where the results of research can be exported and who can licence it.

Universities uneasy

The EDA has already managed and awarded some EU research money. In October, it allocated €1.4 million for three projects due to run until 2018. These are a Portuguese-led research project into sensors to help soldiers detect enemy troops inside buildings in urban conflict, a Dutch-led research on “swarms” of small, autonomous aircraft and a German-led project on standardisation of detect and avoid features for drones.

“The three projects are respectively headed by an SME, a university and a research and technology organisation,” said Roger, by way of emphasising the pilot’s broad appeal. 

However, some scepticism – perhaps queasiness too – remains. Most universities are unlikely to allow their researchers to accept grants to make weapons.

There is also some doubt whether the line between offensive and defensive uses of smart weapons will continue to be maintained in future research programmes.

European universities do not share the same culture as their counterparts in the US, where there is a much closer relationship with the defence world, Roger acknowledged.

“Military research is anathema to universities in many ways,” said Lisandro Benedetti Cecchi, vice rector for European and international research with the University of Pisa. “We are about creating intelligent people who would take all the necessary steps to avoid going to war.”

In addition, universities have a duty to publish research. The necessary secrecy around some military projects means “it is unlikely research outcomes in the pilot will be completely disseminated,” said Roger. For universities whose currency is research papers, this may be an additional turn-off.

For now, the Commission is finalising the topics that will be addressed in the preparatory action. Work programmes should be adopted in two months, with first calls appearing before the summer and the first wave of grant agreements signed late 2017.

“Some topics will be suitable for open calls,” said Roger. Classified calls will probably not appear immediately, but are not excluded in the next few years.  

Funding for defence-related infrastructure – for example wind tunnels – may be considered down the line.

Another proposal on the table involves “reverse calls”, where industry comes forward with an idea to the Commission, which may then decide whether to fund it.

Wake up call

The EDA is now central to the EU’s biggest push on defence in over a decade.

For years, it was very difficult to find a pulse in European defence policy – that is until Britain voted to leave the EU.

The UK has long resisted calls for enhanced military cooperation between member states, concerned that it would be expensive, duplicate things that NATO is much better equipped to do and lead ultimately to the creation of an EU army.

With the UK on the way out, defence and security have risen rapidly up the political agenda. The aim is to reverse a steady decline in investment, a project given fresh urgency by the election of Donald Trump.

The US president has fired numerous warnings on the long-term sustainability of the NATO alliance. “Trump could be a godsend for us to wake up,” said Gomes. “Years of austerity have ruined our defence industry.”

European spending on defence R&D, testing and evaluation is currently less than €8 billion per year, with almost all of this carried out in France, the UK and Germany. It is a fraction of the US R&D investment, which is projected to reach €67 billion next year.

Gomes dwelt on the importance of stepping things up, saying, “Strategic autonomy is almost a dirty word here but there’s no way a country like Latvia or Portugal can meet gaps alone. Even the pacifist countries will see that it is useful to join in and share defence research.”

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