Balancing bureaucracy and accountability with speed and flexibility in Horizon Europe partnerships

30 Jun 2022 | News

Policymakers promised to make the new generation of public-private research partnerships easier to manage. But a year after they started the jury is still out, as a Science|Business conference hears

Science|Business network event

The new versions of the 49 Horizon Europe partnerships with industry and member states were promised to be easier to manage, but industry says managing the bureaucratic burden remains a delicate balancing act.

Horizon Europe partnerships are huge endeavours. Almost half of the EU research programme’s €53.5 billion budget for big collaborative research calls is to be spent on the 49 partnerships in digital, health and climate sectors. Industry and member states’ money will match the public funding, and in many cases exceed it.

Combining public and private money demands accountability and so comes with a thick layer of bureaucracy. EU policymakers have been trying to lessen the administrative burden for participants, while at the same time designing the partnerships to be bigger and more impact-driven than their predecessors.

As the new batch of research partnerships launched one-by-one over the past year, their experiences have differed. Some got off the ground fast, others had significant groundwork to lay.

It’s too early to judge whether the new versions are less bureaucratic than what went before. But the first reactions, gathered at a closed-door Science|Business event bringing together stakeholders from industry, academia and research organisations to discuss Horizon partnerships, is that they still come with a stack of paperwork.

The jury is still out but some partnerships report an increase in administrative work and requiring more full-time equivalent staff to handle it.

One partnership manager argued the increase in paperwork could be related to the one size fits all approach creeping in, despite, policymakers’ best attempts to avoid it in the Single Basic Act, which governs the ten most independent industrial partnerships, also called joint undertakings.

The worry is that bureaucracy is hampering the partnership’s biggest strengths, of speed and flexibility. “The more you try to limit the frame, the less speed and flexibility we have. We have to strike the right balance,” one speaker commented.

The health sector echoes the concerns. Pierre Meulien, executive director of the Innovative Health Initiative (IHI), successor to Horizon 2020’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), says after a lengthy period of laying the groundwork for the joint undertaking, there are still new rules IHI is unsure how to implement.

One provision Meulien singles out is the ability for the partnership to object to the transfer of intellectual property rights outside Europe. IHI funding members are trying to find the way to best balance the principle of European competitiveness with the need to keep IHI attractive to the companies involved in the programme.

“A word that is often in the [regulation] is proportionality. I think this is really key in terms of how we deal with some of these provisions and we need to have a pragmatic view,” says Meulien.  

Others argued the paperwork was complex in previous versions of the programme, but it cannot be avoided. “There’s a big amount of money and with this, we want to serve Europe. [The complexity] is just part of the ambition,” said Željko Pazin, executive director of the European Factories of the Future Research Association (EFFRA), the industry body behind the Made in Europe partnership, which is governed under a different regulation from IHI and Clean Hydrogen.

The key aim, many noted, is keeping industry interested and paying in.

Getting off the ground

The partnerships are largely built on the previous batch of public-private initiatives in Horizon 2020, and noted Peter Dröll, director for prosperity at the European Commission’s research directorate, the current partnerships are modelled after their predecessors because the previous model worked. The new element is a bigger push for societal impact, ingrained in the philosophy of the wider Horizon Europe programme, which the industry and Commission are still trying to figure out how to deliver.

“This is something where we still need to define the details to implement it in practice in the best possible way. But the starting point is clear: triggering and levering more joined-up investments around an agreed long-term investment agenda,” said Dröll.

For some partnerships, the continuity translated into a speedy launch under Horizon Europe despite the late agreement on the EU long-term financial framework.

For some partnerships, such as Clean Hydrogen, the transition from the previous initiative to the new one took only three months.

IHI’s road to the starting line had a few more bumps in it. The new health partnership brings many new stakeholders to the table, expanding beyond pharmaceuticals to include biotechnology, medical technology, diagnostics and digital health. This changed the complexion of the governing board dramatically, says Meulien.

Industry stakeholders in other partnerships said that while bottom-up collaboration was going smoothly, different associations involved in the same initiative often find it difficult to collaborate in a more structured manner.

IHI’s regulation also called for a new advisory group to be formed involving patients, regulators, healthcare professionals and others. This is a positive move, but Meulien noted, it took a while to set up. As a result of the long lead time, IHI is launching its first calls this week, a year after the first big Horizon Europe calls opened.

For Jørgen Dirach, senior director for public private partnerships at the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, the goal in minimising bureaucracy is to leave more room for science and to encourage the sharing of ideas. Bureaucracy is, “An add on which may limit scientific efforts and participation, especially from SMEs” he said.

The next frontier is creating synergies between the different partnerships as well as with other parts of Horizon Europe. The Commission hopes working together will boost their impact.

While IHI has already set up calls to feed into the Horizon Europe mission to save three million lives from cancer by the end of the decade, other partnerships are finding it harder to pinpoint the right partners. Hydrogen technologies, meanwhile, are set to be used in many industries from aviation to producing steal, and sectors have their own partnerships. The choice is vast, but industry says it is important to focus when it comes to choosing the right partners.

Dröll admits fulfilling the requirement to create synergies may not be straightforward. “It’s a new element, it’s an important element, it’s happening but it’s not always easy,” he told the Science|Business network.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up