Horizon 2020 is a success and the evidence is there to prove it

23 Feb 2017 | Viewpoint
Greg Arrowsmith of the Association of European Renewable Energy Research Centres, responds to clean tech entrepreneur Michael Liebreich’s contention that Horizon 2020 is having little impact. You need to look in the right places, he says

Earlier this month, Michael Liebreich, chairman of Bloomberg New Energy Finance and clean tech entrepreneur, called into question the impact of EU research spending in the Horizon 2020 programme, saying he, “can’t see its outputs.

But while the outputs may not be immediately obvious, they are certainly there, as can be seen from a number of sources.

For one, the European Commission collects information on the results of the projects it funds and presents it quantitatively in annual monitoring reports.

The reports count the number of times intellectual property, in various forms, has been protected; the number of times a form of “foreground” has been created, which includes the number of times the result of a project has been commercially exploited; and the number of publications written from Framework Programme projects and where they appeared.

The most recent report said, “Publications funded in FP7 [Horizon 2020’s predecessor] are more often cited than member states’ publications” – a sign that EU-funded research is of high quality.

Last year Thomson Reuters put two European research and technology organisations, France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission and Fraunhofer, first and second in its survey of “the world’s most innovative research institutions. And note - they were also ranked third and second for the number of projects they participated in in FP7 (see Table six).

The Commission wants to develop an even more sophisticated approach for measuring the impact of its funding in its next research programme, FP9 with Kurt Vandenberghe, director of policy development and coordination in the Commission’s DG Research, talking of using qualitative indicators.

These might include success stories that capture the sometimes complex way that a research result has been used to create wealth. Such stories are very helpful in convincing politicians of the value of the Framework Programmes, and of publicly-funded research generally.

That is why, in 2014, we produced a catalogue telling the stories of EU-funded projects in which our members participated, and why, since 2009, European Association of Research and Technology Organisations has recognised its members’ best projects with an annual award ceremony. A 2017 edition of our catalogue is being prepared.

Such individual successes do not convey the full picture of how EU research funding advances fields as a whole. Speaking last November, at the 8th European Innovation Summit, Vandenberghe said, “We are now increasingly doing portfolio analyses going beyond success stories of projects [to] seeing what difference we have made for batteries over the last decades [and] cancer research [for example].”

It takes time and money to trace the path from input to output, but the effort is worthwhile to make sure public money is well spent. Austria, in its initial thinking on FP9, agrees.

Project coordinators can be relied upon to be cooperative even after their project has ended – Article 23 of the Horizon 2020 model grant agreement ensures this.

The public is happy to support EU-funded research. That, at least, is the message of this 2010 Eurobarometer survey (see chapter 6 ‘Effectiveness of European Scientific Research’).

This attitude has withstood the difficulty in pointing to “visible” impacts, perhaps because it is common experience that one can learn something one day but only find a way of applying it sometime later.

Social is good for science

In addition to questioning its impact, Liebreich doubts the value of Horizon 2020’s rule requiring - for the vast majority of its funding – that there is a partnership involving at least three countries.

The rule exists because Horizon 2020 is meant to be a programme researchers turn to when the expertise needed to develop an idea is spread across borders.

It has a lot of support. Horizon 2020’s national contact points – in total 1,592 people across the world, capable of an informed but relatively disinterested view of Horizon 2020 – were surveyed for the programme’s monitoring report 2015.

The statement “Horizon 2020 is … adding value to support cross border research and innovation collaboration compared to national funding programmes in [my] country” beat all eight other possible statements as the one that most contact points “strongly agree” or “agree” with.

Incidentally, the question, “Do you think that Horizon 2020 adequately stimulates the participation of newcomers?” (that is, new applicants) received the lowest level of agreement of 11 possible answers, a response I would suggest undermines the contention that Horizon 2020 is above all a “social programme”.                      

To sum up, Horizon 2020 already has a positive scientific and economic impact and the Commission intends to measure its outputs more thoroughly in future. It is the best mechanism at Europe’s disposal for handing out money to international teams; indeed, it was designed to do just this.

Greg Arrowsmith is policy advisor at EUREC, the Association of European Renewable Energy Research Centres. EUREC published “The Future Shape of European Renewable Energy Research and Innovation” in December 2016. Its submission to the European Commission’s public consultation on the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 is here.

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