Consultation exposes problem over funding for basic vs applied research in Horizon Europe

09 Mar 2023 | News

Universities say too much money is going into near-market technologies, potentially spelling disaster for EU’s long-term goals. But industry says time is ripe to cement the green and digital transitions 

There’s agreement across the board that there is an imbalance in Horizon Europe’s Pillar 2, the catchall ‘Global challenges and European industrial competitiveness’, which stakeholders want to see remedied. But there is little agreement about how to address this, with universities saying research to establish basic concepts and validate them in the lab is being neglected, while industry argues now is the time to focus resources on demonstrating technologies at scale and getting innovation to market.  

The demand for a better balance in Horizon Europe’s collaborative research pillar dominated recent public feedback to the consultation on the first half of the EU’s research programme.  

According to universities, since the previous Horizon 2020 research programme, the balance has shifted towards higher technology readiness levels (TRLs) in big calls for research. They calculate only 14% of Horizon Europe’s Pillar 2 goes into TRLs one to four, down from 20% in the first few years of the last EU research framework, Horizon 2020.  

Universities believe this goes against Horizon Europe’s legislation, which demands a balance between lower, medium and higher TRL levels. “What we say is that the Commission should respect the regulation, and that we see a decrease compared with the previous programme,” says Kamila Kozirog, policy analyst at the European University Association (EUA). 

And the concern goes beyond rules and who gets the money – it’s about measuring the impact of the programme. Research is a continuum. Ideas are explored at a basic level and then mature towards the market. Funding lower TRLs pushes the frontiers of knowledge, higher TRLs produce innovations that benefit society. Both are essential, both need funding.  

Alexandre Affre, deputy director general at Business Europe, says one type of research shouldn’t come at the expense of the other, but right now Europe needs fast solutions to help address its multiple crises.  

“Horizon Europe should equip Europe with those increasing impacts for short and medium-term and preparing the ground for the future by investing in lower TRLs,” says Affre. “Where there is an extra effort to be made in this point in time is to speed up efforts in terms of green and digital [transitions.] The range of challenges are numerous, so to speed up things, we have to make an extra effort in higher TRLs at this stage.” 

Looking for solutions 

But the Horizon Europe budget of €95.5 billion is stretched thin across a myriad different priorities. Rebalancing is a difficult exercise, and stakeholders want the Commission to be smart about it.  

A joint paper by EUA and the university association Cesaer suggests Europe needs, “to go beyond the notion of TRLs by exploring and piloting new approaches.” In other words, the current linear understanding of how a technology gets to market is rather outdated and needs a rethink in the EU’s research framework. 

Marta Agostinho, executive director of EU-LIFE, an association of life sciences research institutes, suggests introducing multiple-stage grants, which would allow a project to get funding starting at a low TRL and if successful, progress toward higher ones.  

Right now, she says, EU’s big collaborative projects are asked to cover too many TRLs all at once, making them overly complex. “The projects are so big that it can be very complicated to assemble such a big project. It’s not even about the size of the consortium, but the size of the ambition,” Agostinho said. 

Such bite size projects in Pillar 2 could take a lesson or two from the synergies between the EU’s basic research fund, the European Research Council and the innovation fund, the European Innovation Council, which allow researchers to take their frontier research results closer to the market through a sequence of grants that are tiered according to the level of maturity. 

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, says rebalancing requires a rethinking of how the EU understands impact and how it’s best achieved. “There’s a clear sense in the sector that the impact requirements are too rigid. We don’t get anything by getting researchers to overpromise,” he tells Science|Business. 

But first and foremost, the rebalancing means respect for the legislation and the rules for TRL balance. “The regulation is very clear. It’s 50/50. It’s the legal basis,” says Palmowski.  

Cannibalising Horizon 

The problem of Horizon Europe money being spread so thinly is being compounded by the Commission diverting money from the research budget into emerging political priorities, such as the New European Bauhaus and the Chips Act.  

“We cannot continue increasing the portfolio of Horizon Europe without increasing the funding. We keep opening the box of Horizon Europe to solve more challenges, but we don’t add more budget,” says Agostinho. “The R&I budget should be sacred.” 

For industry, the demand is the same: more money for Horizon Europe, more money for Pillar 2. “This is what we have been saying since the start of Horizon Europe,” says Affre.  

The way to get prioritised is to be loud. “I think those in Brussels and in capitals, all parties and stakeholders need to make the case for the value of the programme,” says Affre. “It's a matter of first explaining again and again the value of investment in R&I for the short and longer term, and then it’s about explaining the value of the programme.” 

And this goes beyond framework programmes, Affre adds. There should be higher public investment in research overall, and he hopes the current debate around quicker access to public finance prompted by the US Inflation Reduction Act will give momentum to a shift in thinking around research funding. “Of course, it’s easy to say but not to implement. But I hope the political will to look into this is higher than in previous times,” Affre said. 

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