Back to school: An overview of the EU research and innovation policies to watch this autumn

26 Aug 2021 | News

As the Brussels policy machine gets back into gear, Science|Business has drawn up a list of the main policy debates to follow over the next few months

Hoping to put pandemic-related delays behind it, the Brussels policy machine is cranking up again after the summer break. First up on the agenda is the (non-binding) pact for research and innovation, with the Commission now waiting for member states to sign off on the pact following its launch by research commissioner Mariya Gabriel back in July.

The pact seeks to convince member states lagging behind the EU average R&D expenditure to increase their total public and private research funding by 50% in the next five years. The Commission wants member states to raise total private and public expenditure on research and development to 3% of gross domestic product – something only Germany, Sweden and Austria achieved in 2019, according to Eurostat. The EU average of 2.2% is well below the US, Japan, and South Korea.

Agreeing to boost R&D spending is the first step in the process of revamping the European Research Area (ERA). The Commission has organised a so-called “ERA Forum for Transition” to come up with a new governance system for Europe’s single market for research, and a scoreboard to track progress.  

Slovenia now holds the presidency of the EU Council and before the end of the year aims to convince member states to sign the pact and agree on the first policy agenda under the new ERA.

Research stakeholders doubt the non-binding pact will produce the desired effect, because member states are unlikely to be able to boost national R&D spending over such a short timeframe. Currently, in the EU’s poorest countries, public research budgets are less than 0.5% of GDP, with some budgets as low as 0.2%.

Horizon Europe association

Kosovo is the first country to complete talks with the European Commission on Horizon Europe association. The details have been ironed out but it will take until around November for the two sides to complete the necessary paperwork before the deal can be ratified.

The negotiations with seventeen other EU neighbours in the east and south that were associated to Horizon Europe’s predecessor, Horizon 2020, are also expected to finish in the coming weeks.

The Commission is also pursuing other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, to convince them to join the €95.5 billion programme. But it has suspended talks with Switzerland over disagreements on unpaid contributions to the EU’s cohesion programme and botched political talks on renewing Swiss-EU economic links. 

Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe said the Commission’s strategy on Switzerland may make sense politically, but it compromises decades of scientific cooperation. Switzerland is involved in the European Research Area and its revamp. It is also part of the European Open Science Cloud and is the home of CERN.

An indefinite exclusion from Horizon Europe could damage overall relations, said Borrell-Damián. “Switzerland is normally a good example to follow; it’s a hallmark example of policies in favour of the ERA,” she said.

Research missions

Research missions are one of the novelties in Horizon Europe. Initially conceived by former research commissioner Carlos Moedas and his advisor, UCL economics professor Mariana Mazzucato, the missions are supposed to signal a new approach to urgent societal problems.

The Commission has drawn up five missions - on cancer, climate, oceans, climate neutral cities and healthy soils.

Since November last year, the Commission has been working on the scope of the missions, each of which will have a budget of €5 million from Horizon Europe. As yet, the Commission has not published any implementation plans, and with Gabriel due to launch the missions in the coming weeks, more details should be expected soon.

The European Bauhaus

This autumn the Commission will launch five pilot projects in its Bauhaus initiative, aimed at finding new technologies and designs for sustainable housing in Europe. The project was first met with scepticism by the European Parliament, with MEPs having doubts over its funding.

Innovation ecosystems

Towards the end of the year, the Commission could put forward a plan for fostering innovation ecosystems across EU’s regions. Over the past year, Gabriel has been gathering views from CEOs, venture capitalist and women entrepreneurs on how the EU can translate more of its breakthrough science to the market. All that advice is to be boiled down into a plan which is due to be presented by the end of the year.

New biomedical research agency

A few months after the pandemic struck Europe in March 2020, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, called for the establishment of a new agency to deal with cross border health emergencies. Earlier this year, the Commission launched a public consultation on establishing the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).

The exact remit of the HERA is not known yet, but is expected to be set out in a legislative proposal by the end of the year.

Health data space

The EU is planning to establish a European Health Data Space, to encourage the return of many research programmes and clinical trials to the EU.  The Commission gathered feedback in a public consultation which ended in July and policy makers are working on a legislative proposal to be adopted in the fourth quarter of 2021.

The first plenary

On 13 September, MEPs will gather in Strasbourg for the first plenary session after the summer break. They are scheduled to vote through a plan to reduce the use of animals in research, regulatory testing and education.

MEPs will also get the chance to grill the Council on its proposed draft budget for 2022. They previously criticised the Council for slashing €316 million off next year’s Horizon Europe budget. The Commission’s initial proposal had allocated nearly €12.2 billion for the research and innovation programme, but member states thought the demand for funding was low and decided to backload the money to the end of Horizon Europe, which will run until 2027.

Following this,  Commission president Von der Leyen will deliver her state of the union speech on 15 September, when she is expected to reaffirm the Commission’s political goal of using research and innovation to green and digitise the economy.

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