Back to school: what’s on the European research and innovation policy agenda this autumn

24 Aug 2023 | News

A new research commissioner, a staff reshuffle at the Commission and a potential breakthrough in the long-running stalemate over UK association to Horizon Europe are on the cards

After a summer of fun, the EU research and policy bubble is back in business and bracing for a busy run up to Christmas: a new research commissioner, negotiations on the EU’s ambitions to be a leader in critical technologies and (hopefully) a much-anticipated final sprint for UK association to Horizon Europe.

It’s been an action-packed year, with the current European Commission churning out new legislative proposals as the end of its term looms into view and thoughts turn to its departure from the Berlaymont next year. The final pieces of the Ursula von der Leyen Commission’s green and digital ambitions are being set in stone – the proposal for Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP) to support European leadership on critical technologies landed in the hands of member states and MEPs over the summer.

The research bubble meanwhile is gearing up for the Commission to release the strategic plan for the final three years of the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme, which is due by the end of the year. The plan will set strategic direction and, if member states give the go-ahead, see the launch of ten new public-private partnerships and a new Horizon Mission centred around the New European Bauhaus.

Until the end of the year, the Spanish are in charge of the EU. For research, the presidency is focused on setting a strategic direction for the years to come, the country’s research minister Diana Morant told Science|Business in July. This will include developing a joint approach to embedding science in key policy areas and on building up research cooperation with countries around the Mediterranean and in Latin America.

Below is a summary of what to keep on your radar:

New commissioner in town

There will be a new commissioner in charge of research and innovation (and education, culture, youth and sports) this September after Bulgaria put forward Iliana Ivanova’s candidacy in late June.

But before she can take the reins, the former member of the European Court of Auditors will have to appear before a joint hearing of the European Parliament’s industry and culture committees on 5 September.

MEPs are set to grill Ivanova on how she hopes to manage the underfunded Horizon Europe programme, ensure balance between bottom-up and policy-driven research and innovation, and other practical and political issues.

If she passes the test, Ivanova will succeed Mariya Gabriel, who unexpectedly left the post in June to break political deadlock and form a new government in her home country of Bulgaria.

UK Horizon association

The stand-off between Brussels and London over UK participation in Horizon Europe could end in the coming weeks if the UK’s higher education and science sectors manage to convince prime minister Rishi Sunak of the programme’s worth.

Reports emerged in early July that Sunak was close to making a decision but it then became clear the two sides are still haggling over the terms and conditions of the deal, in particular over an “automatic correction” that would oblige the UK government to pay compensation to the EU if the UK gets more out of Horizon Europe than it puts in.

It’s unclear whether the two sides will soon come to an agreement, but the clock is ticking and Sunak will have to pick between joining Horizon Europe and launching Pioneer, a national alternative,  very soon.

Changes in the Commission’s R&I directorate

Director general Marc Lemaître is working on a big reorganisation of the Commission’s research directorate-general for research and innovation (RTD). In an interview with Science|Business in July, he confirmed some changes are coming this autumn, including a reduction of the current headcount.

The staff cuts are a continuation of a Commission strategy to keep RTD focused on policy and design of funding programmes and to move the implementation to executive agencies. The department will lose 75 staff over the next three years, with some units due to be shuffled this autumn.

More money for critical technologies

The Commission’s June EU budget revamp proposed a (sort of) new €10 billion fund for key technologies, in the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP).

This is extra money the Commission is asking member states to put forward and divert from other EU priorities to top-up the budget of the European Innovation Council (EIC).

Under the proposal, the EIC is in line for an extra €2.6 billion, to be channelled through the delay-ridden Accelerator programme which provides grant and equity funding to cash-strapped start-ups.

If secured, the money would give a significant boost to the Accelerator, which currently has €7 billion to invest over seven years. But it is unlikely to be an easy battle, with member states hesitant to put extra funding into the EU budget.

The STEP fund will also put more money into the InvestEU programme, which was set up to help the economy recover from the pandemic; into the Innovation Fund for clean tech projects; and into dual-use technology funded through the European Defence Fund.

New public-private research partnerships

Right before summer recess, the Commission gave EU member states a list of ten new partnerships that it wants to set up under Horizon Europe, pooling European, national and private funding.

If approved by the member states, starting in 2025, these new public-private partnerships will cover topics including brain health, cultural heritage, solar power and textiles, adding to the current portfolio of 49 joint research programmes.

The existing partnerships in Horizon Europe are in the four strategic areas of health; digital and industry; climate, energy and mobility; and food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment.

The proposed ten new partnerships are intended to complement EU policies and strategies put forward by the Commission since 2021.

New Mission – or not?

Another July proposal from the Commission is for a new Horizon Europe Mission focused on the New European Bauhaus, an EU initiative that puts a cultural spin on the EU’s green ambitions.

Thus far funded through Horizon Europe, the New Bauhaus hasn’t found a home in any of the EU’s programmes. The new Mission – the sixth in the Horizon portfolio –  would give it clear focus.

However, to date, the Missions haven’t won the hearts and minds of researchers, who find them cumbersome and not research-oriented enough.

They’re a novel approach to research funding that sets concrete goals and uses seed funding to set up demonstrator projects and promote dialogue. This is meant to inspire innovation and attract private and public funding from elsewhere, but even the Commission’s research chief admits they’ve been failing to do so thus far.

Research careers

Also in July, the Commission finally put forward a plan to improve working conditions for researchers.

It’s a non-binding three-pronged approach which includes more effective monitoring of research careers through an observatory; an updated charter for researchers; and a competence framework of seven areas researchers are expected to develop skills in.

Some wanted to see the Commission to go further, but it’s a good plan overall, activists say. Now, the pressure is on to convince EU governments to act on it.

Any other business ?

Elsewhere in the policy bubble, files on the negotiating table that may stir the interest of research policy experts include the European Health Data Space, the Critical Raw Materials Act and the Net Zero Industry Act.

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