Challenge-driven programmes in cancer, climate change and smart cities are not working out as planned. To be successful they need to pull in outside funding, says new EU research head Marc Lemaître. A progress report is due out next week
The five high profile Horizon Europe research Missions set up to address grand challenges in areas including climate change, cancer and water pollution are not working out as planned after failing to pull in external funding, the new head of EU research Marc Lemaître admitted in one of his first public outings since taking up the role in February.
“Missions, in financial terms, are a very modest part of the Horizon Europe budget. It’s [a few] hundred million euros per year – you don’t get very far with that,” he said. “Clearly, for missions to be ultimately successful it will require the crowding in of many other funding sources and we haven’t in all honestly seen that yet to the extent we would like,” Lemaître told a meeting in Brussels on Monday, organised by Poland’s National Centre for Research and Development and Business & Science Poland.
There should be a clearer idea of exactly how far off track the five Missions are - and hints of whether the idea of challenge-driven research will be carried over to the next EU research framework programme - in a review of their progress to date that is due to be published on 4 July.
Lemaître was similarly circumspect about the Horizon Europe Widening programme, which aims to close the gap between the EU’s weakest research performers, mostly in eastern Europe, and the strongest performers in northern Europe. He appeared particularly hesitant on how successful Widening measures have been, questioning the various instruments set up under it.
“I think we should reflect as part of the process towards the next framework programme on whether the [Widening] instruments that have been put in place under Horizon 2020 and […] under Horizon Europe, are really up to making the difference, or whether we are missing something, and we don’t have all the instruments we need,” he said.
However, Lemaître clearly believes action is needed on levelling up. “We need to do better in making sure that all of Europe’s research capacities are firing on all cylinders and today we are not there,” he said.
The former head of the regional development directorate general admitted he has shied away from public appearances to talk about research while he “gets to know the basics” of Horizon Europe.
While prevaricating on the future prospects for Missions and the shape of Widening initiatives, one clear message from Lemaître is that Europe needs to improve its research, development and innovation landscape if it wants to keep pace with the US and China.
An analysis of Horizon Europe, published by the Commission in May, shows that Europe is falling further behind the US in terms of innovation performance, while China is close to catching up. For Lemaître, this trend is reversible but it will require a huge effort.
More broadly, Europe must rise to global challenges such as climate change and AI, with policymakers constantly playing catch up to manage these. “Europe needs to raise its game fast if it wants to achieve its different ambitions,” Lemaître said. “We will not be sufficiently autonomous on the different key technologies of the future if we are not right there at the front of the pack.”
The EU’s response came in a new €10 billion package of investment in strategic technologies that was proposed by the Commission last week, in answer to the massive investment going into green technologies in the US through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
Of the €10 billion, €2.6 billion will be channelled through the European Innovation Council to support high tech start-ups.
The name of the new programme, the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP), might be “too bureaucratic” for Lemaître, but he said it is a move in the right direction. It will allow the EIC to make “big ticket investments” in SMEs that are scaling up, an area where Europe is very weak compared to the US.
While €500 million of the €2.6 billion going to EIC is new money, most is being siphoned off from other parts of Horizon Europe, and Lemaître attempted to allay concerns about this.
“When it comes to the annual ups and downs of the budgetary procedure, I really don’t think we should be worrying. Horizon Europe as a programme is the best funded ever by far. [Its budget] has not been called into question by anything,” he said.
“We still have as much money [available] as was proposed initially and with the STEP proposal we are asking for €500 million more of totally fresh money.”
Change of leadership
Lemaître’s appointment came at a time when many plates are spinning, with the evaluation of the Horizon 2020 framework programme expected at the end of this year, and the interim evaluation of Horizon Europe due out at the end of 2024. Ontop of that, a proposal for the future framework programme, the EU’s tenth, is planned for mid-2025.
The situation was not made any easier by last month’s departure of research Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who returned to national politics in Bulgaria, initially taking up the role of foreign minister before a planned switch to become prime minister next year.
Gabriel’s research portfolio was handed to EU executive vice president Margrethe Vestager, who subsequently said she is in the running for the top job at the European Investment Bank. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has reportedly asked Vestager to step down should she be officially nominated for the position by her national government in Denmark.
These changes have meant “a few extra hours at work” Lemaître said. “When your political authority changes, as it did with Commissioner Gabriel’s departure, you need to start afresh in a way to build up the right working relations. But rest always assured that I benefited from the appropriate and immediate steer when needed. We didn’t drop the ball.”