EU Commission launches bid to expand funding of dual-use research in Horizon Europe’s successor

24 Jan 2024 | News

The Commission has set out proposals to fund more research with military as well as civil applications in Framework Programme 10, but universities want to see safeguards put in place

The Berlaymont building in Brussels, headquarters of the European Commission. Photo: European Commission

The European Commission is proposing to allow technologies with both civil and defence applications to be funded in Framework Programme 10 (FP10), in order to boost the EU’s strategic autonomy.

This is one of three possibilities for boosting dual-use research featured in a white paper published on Wednesday, which the Commission is putting to a public consultation until 30 April.

The proposed reform would remove the exclusive focus on civil applications in “selected parts” of the successor to the Horizon Europe framework programme, which will take effect in 2028.

Currently, projects involving the defence industry or dual-use technologies may be eligible for Horizon Europe funding, but only if the research is intended to be used exclusively for civil applications.

The proposal would allow “spin-in calls involving defence-related projects results” in the Horizon Europe successor, and for the European Defence Fund, which exclusively supports defence applications, to provide follow-up funding to develop the defence applications of civil projects.

A more conservative option would be to provide “incremental improvements” by leveraging existing measures, including spin-in calls under the European Defence Fund (EDF) and the possibility to support dual-use companies with InvestEU.

The third option presented is to create a new, dedicated instrument to fund R&D with dual use potential, but the Commission warns this would risk adding complexity to the existing funding landscape and creating duplication with other programmes.

The Commission has been pushing for more dual-use research, and it hopes the options it has presented can create more civil-defence synergies which will benefit European industry, and help the bloc adapt to an increasingly tense geopolitical climate.

The white paper is part of a package of measures aiming to strengthen Europe’s economic security.

Many of the modern technologies seen as critical to Europe’s security as well as its economic prosperity have both civil and military potential, in areas including digital, energy, mobility, and space. Examples include drones, GPS data, and thermal imaging.

At the European Space Conference in Brussels on Tuesday, the Belgian minister in charge of science policy, Thomas Dermine, said the Belgian presidency of the EU Council will support opening up funding to more dual-use research in the space field.

“There is nothing that looks more like a military satellite than a civilian satellite,” he said.

“In Belgium we already use military funding to fund dual-use technology within the European Space Agency framework, and we see it can work and we see the value added - both for the minister who has to defend the budget for ESA and for the defence department.”

Universities on the fence

The proposals are likely to provoke intense discussions within the European research community, which is waiting for clarification on how these proposals would impact their work.

European Research Council (ERC) president Maria Leptin said the ERC’s Scientific Council will debate the impact of the proposals once they are more concrete.

“The fundamental principle of the ERC is that we select projects in an entirely bottom-up way, with scientific excellence as the sole evaluation criterion. We wouldn’t want our mission to change in any way,” she said.

“Many universities would prefer to keep military and civilian research separate,” said Claire Gray, senior policy officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU). However, the removal of the ‘civil-only’ clause “reflects a new reality” in which dual use research is omnipresent.

“Almost all research could be used for dual use purposes in some way, even social sciences and humanities research,” she said.

“In LERU’s view, the Framework Programme shouldn’t overtly promote military research itself, but neither should we be too cautious about a research area simply on the grounds of dual use potential.”

LERU is calling for safeguards, such as a framework for the ethical assessment of the risk of military misuse, and for researchers to “retain the option to prevent military applications of their research as much as possible.”

The views of member states

Of course, any proposals from the Commission to include dual use research in FP10 will have to get past member states.

One member state science diplomat to the EU, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they had no indication their national government would drop its objection to dual use research.

In the design of Horizon Europe, the Commission originally proposed allowing some dual use projects, but this was overruled by member states and MEPs who wanted a civilian-only programme.

However, the diplomat added, several national elections take place at the end of 2025 and the beginning of 2026, so positions could soften in European capitals before decisions are taken on FP10.

Another member state science diplomat, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some national governments are now making up their minds on the dual use proposals.

“Changes in some country positions are not unlikely, but probably not in all,” they said.

Risk to associated countries

Meanwhile, if FP10 is open to dual-use research, this could have an impact on third-country participation, including of researchers from countries associated to Horizon Europe. EU states have the option to shut out associated countries like the UK, Canada or New Zealand from sensitive calls, and the inclusion of dual use projects could widen the use of exclusions.

“Associated countries are already nervous about the number of actions where participation is excluded,” Gray said.

Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International, said it is too early to judge how this might affect the UK, but that “anything that restricts access to strategically important parts of the programme would impact on the value proposition for any future government”.

The Commission’s communication to the Parliament and Council on the package does however promise to “enhance dialogues on economic security concerns with third countries associated with Horizon Europe, such as the UK, Canada or New Zealand.”

There is also an obligation to exploit framework programme results, and Gray said removing the civil-only focus “could be challenging” for universities which have clauses regarding the pursuit of peaceful research, or in neutral countries such as Switzerland.

In Germany, more than 70 of the 423 publicly-funded higher education institutions have a civil clause committing them to conduct research for peaceful purposes only, and this is likely to play a role in the upcoming debate, says a spokesman for the German Rectors’ Conference.

These universities should still be able to participate in a framework programme that enables dual-use research, he said. “However, it is likely that the implementation of such a programme will evoke major controversial discussions in the scientific community.”

Commercial opportunities

For industry, the changes could allow it to open up to different sectors from an earlier stage of development.

NATO has already identified the benefits of technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum, space and biotech, which can have civilian and defence applications.

It recently launched the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), which specifically supports dual-use tech startups. Among the 44 start-ups selected in its first intake in November, 30 are European.

Quadsat, a Danish scale-up developing a drone-based antenna measurement system, that is one of them, is also involved in an EDF consortium. Adapting European funding rules would be beneficial for businesses, said CEO Joakim Espeland.

“Proving yourself to the defence sector requires you to have a very mature technology,” he told Science|Business. “That technology might be able to provide value to the commercial sector long before that.”

He says civil-only restrictions in funding programmes can slow companies down in accessing defence markets, by forcing them to “take away all of the little things you have to do to also comply with the defence sectors”, and to design their products purely for commercial applications in the beginning.

Aerospace is one industry with both commercial and defence applications. “Enhanced R&D support for technologies with a dual-use potential, building on the successes of Horizon Europe and the European Defence Fund, would be welcome," said a spokesman for Airbus.

French multinational Thales also develops many dual use technologies, from satellites and air traffic control, to semiconductors and artificial intelligence, and is one of the most active participants in Horizon Europe and the EDF.

The options put forward by the Commission go in the right direction, said the company’s chief scientific officer, Marko Erman, who agrees with the assessment that civil-defence synergies are not yet fully exploited.

He does however have reservations as to the third option, which proposes to create a dedicated funding instrument. “Dual use is sometimes discovered by doing, you don’t decide at the start that a given technology is dual use,” he said.

Exploring dual use potential from the outset would save time in bringing technology to the market, but the adaptation between civil and defence uses also costs money. “Being able to identify dual use potential, and find the funds to make that transformation, would be very positive,” said Erman.

In April 2023, a report by the European Court of Auditors called for a long-term strategy for defence R&D, to ensure EU-funded technologies are taken up by the defence sector.

Other proposals in the economic security package concern enhancing research security, export controls on dual-use technologies, the screening of foreign investment into the EU, and identifying risks stemming from outbound investments in certain technologies.

This story was updated on January 25 to include further reactions

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