23 Mar 2017   |   Viewpoint

Horizon 2020’s continued funding of big companies should be questioned

Soledad Cabezón Ruiz, MEP, will challenge the European Commission to better justify the money it awards to industry for research projects in an opinion to be delivered to the Parliament on Thursday.

The MEP charged with drafting the European Parliament’s halfway assessment of Horizon 2020 is calling for a review of several of the programme’s industry-focused competitions.

Soledad Cabezón Ruiz will challenge the European Commission to better justify the money it awards to big companies in an opinion delivered on Thursday to the Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee.

“It should be made clear whether big enterprises do require public research funding,” Cabezón Ruiz says.

The document, which may be amended during a period typically lasting a week, seems to suggest tilting the Horizon 2020 programme back more towards fundamental and collaborative research and away from applied and industry-led projects.

The Spanish MEP says she, “Regrets that industries have not increased their share of R&D spending,” and asks the Commission to, “Assess the added value of funding for industry-driven instruments such as Joint Technology Initiatives, which account for a large share of the budget.”

In the future, larger or more mature industries should participate in projects “more at their own cost or through loans”, she says.

However, Cabezón Ruiz acknowledges that industry should get funding for, “Specific projects requiring major infrastructure, big budgets, and with a high added value for the whole of society in the EU.”

Cabezón Ruiz, a cardiologist before she was a politician, also notes that larger research projects naturally favour large institutions. This creates a problem for smaller member states and for small participants from larger member states, and concentrates funding in “elite institutions”.

The general thrust of the paper, which will be used as a touchstone by lawmakers during drafting of the next framework programme, raises the prospect of a clash of visions between a parliament which seems to be asking for a greater re-focussing on research and the ideas of EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who has talked a lot about using the framework programmes as a way of financing the next big and disruptive technologies.

Although the document displays a certain scepticism about granting large amounts of EU money to big industry, it welcomes the creation of the European Innovation Council (EIC), which is being designed by Moedas to find and support young innovative companies.

Moedas has said that this new initiative, which will be launched as a pilot this year, will not compete with the Horizon 2020-funded European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT), launched in 2008 to stimulate innovation.

However, Cabezón Ruiz asks the Commission “to analyse” how the EIT’s Knowledge and Innovation Communities, “can be integrated into the EIC,” an idea which would appear to suggest the MEP favours rationalising the institute. 

At the same time, Cabezón Ruiz makes the case for a budget of €100 billion for the next research programme, FP9.

This sum, which would be difficult to reach under normal circumstances, now looks even more of a pipe dream, with the looming departure of the UK, a net contributor to the EU. However, it has become an aspiration of MEPs.

Cabezón Ruiz also calls on the Commission to keep military research separate from civilian research, to boost international participation, which is half the level it was under the previous programme, and to retain Horizon 2020’s three-pillar structure “for the sake of continuity and predictability.”

There should also be a greater push on gender equality, she says, noting the Commission’s goal of a minimum of 40 per cent of women participants has not been reached anywhere in the programme.

“Figures for women sitting on expert panels or involved in major projects or their coordination are also still low. Their participation in the various societal challenges or the industrial pillar does not match progress made on their involvement in technological careers,” Cabezón Ruiz says.

In addition, the Commission should rationalise Horizon 2020, which currently has more than 20 different coordinating bodies involved in its operation.

Cabezón Ruiz’s opinion will be formally drafted in the coming weeks and voted on.

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