Parliament seeks to amend application of ‘do no significant harm’ principle in EU research

18 Apr 2023 | News

Research stakeholders are concerned applying this principle across the board will create an administrative burden and could impede climate change research. Parliament’s budget committee wants a more proportionate approach

MEP Moritz Körner has stressed the importance of being smart about applying the 'do not significant harm' principle on a wider scale. Photo: Jan Van De Vel / European Union

An expected update to the EU’s Financial Regulation is intended to ensure its money is not used for any purpose that may harm the environment, but stakeholders are worried this could end up placing an unnecessary burden on research.

The ‘Do No Significant Harm’ (DNSH) principle, which was introduced a few years ago, already applies to parts of the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme. In areas where it does, applicants are asked to prove their research will not be bad for the planet.

Now, the update will see the rule uniformly applied across the EU budget, including current and future research programmes.

Researchers believe this could hinder progress, especially in fundamental research, which relies on free exploration and may take scientists down unexpected avenues.

The European Parliament echoes the concerns that a uniform rule could impose barriers to research, including projects that would help advance the fight against climate change. To avoid this, the Parliament budget committee has proposed the rule should be applied “where feasible and appropriate, in accordance with the relevant sector specific rules.”

“No firemen would cut their own fire hose when fighting a fire. The EU needs innovation to fight climate change, and its own financial rules and ever-growing conditions must not prevent necessary research,” said Moritz Körner, an MEP on the budget committee.

He stressed the importance of being smart about the new rule. “The ‘Do Not Significant Harm’ principle needs to be applied in a proportionate way for research institutions to keep the EU budget attractive,” Körner said.

Strained logic

The DNSH principle was first introduced with huge billion-euro projects in mind, such as those funded by the EU’s €750 billion recovery fund. But with the Commission trying to make its oversight as uniform as possible, it has expanded the application of the principle to programmes that deal with smaller projects, such as Horizon Europe.

Researchers aren’t opposed to the principle –  it makes sense to ensure the EU isn’t funding projects that drive it further away from its net-zero goals – but the fragmented implementation has been causing headaches.

Kamila Kozirog, policy analyst at the European University Association (EUA), says the big issue with the proposal currently on the table is the extra administrative burden it would create for researchers across the board.

“We have been advocating for programme simplification for many years, and we can only do that by reducing the burden and complexity. That’s why we cannot support the broader application of the principle in the programme before we address the administrative burden,” Kozirog said.

Three years into Horizon Europe, applicants still don’t know how to apply this principle and no clear guidelines exist, Kozirog noted. This is also confusing for evaluators. While the Commission has come up with a long list of possible harms, it’s not exhaustive and even bureaucrats are still unsure what DNSH exactly means, especially in Horizon Europe.

For now, universities want the DNSH requirements to be kept in the parts of the programme to which it currently applies: the European Innovation Council and elements of the funding for large collaborative projects, including digital, industry and space; climate, energy and mobility; and food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment (these are Pillar 2 Clusters 4, 5 and 6).

“We are not against expanding it in the future, but we first need to evaluate the application of the principle in Horizon Europe,” says Kozirog.

Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of the university association CESAER, says it’s important to be smart about the way the principle is applied to ensure has the desired effect

“For the future, what we would like to see is that we strengthen the concept behind this principle by reducing the burden for researchers and enhancing sustainability,” he says.

This could be done by using ethical checklists in the design phase of the projects and applying the principle in an ethics by design approach, for example.

Uncertainty ahead

Parliament’s budget committee is due to vote on its rendition of the financial rules revamp, which includes more flexibility in the application of the DNSH principle, next week. If the position passes, as is expected, Parliament will move closer to beginning negotiations on the details of the file with the member states. There, it may have to defend the introduction of new language on the principle.

Meanwhile at the Council, the member states are still working on the fine details of the rule changes and there is no date for the adoption of a position yet. “We are currently still analysing the proposal at technical level, there is no date foreseen for the adoption of the Council position,” a Council spokeswoman said. “In any case, once we enter the phase of trilogue negotiations we will look in detail at each of [the Parliament’s] ideas.”

Björnmalm says opponents of the rewording are worried about creating loopholes in the legislation that would allow non-climate-friendly projects to slip through the cracks and get funding. No one is against giving researchers more leeway per se.

But the repercussions for research could be big. “We are worried that if this goes the wrong way, it will have far reaching impact on how we can use the EU budget. In particular that this will create problems in near-sustainability topics,” says Björnmalm.

He fully supports the Parliament’s take on the issue. “The proposed amendment clarifies that we can take a programme-specific approach, we can tailor the usage of the DNSH principle and the concepts that are behind it so that contributions of R&I […] can really help to achieve sustainable goals in the Green Deal,” he tells Science|Business. “We think the amendment in how it is being phrased now helps us achieve this.”

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