Canada to sign Horizon Europe association deal next year

24 Nov 2023 | News

Deal announced at EU-Canada summit opens door to wider transatlantic collaboration in research, energy, digital and other fields. Wanted now: ‘transformative discoveries’ by working together, EU president says

Charles Michel, President of the European Council; Justin Trudeau, Canada's Prime Minister; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

After lengthy negotiations, the EU and Canada reached agreement for Canadian researchers to join Horizon Europe research programme from next year.

The deal was announced at an EU-Canada summit in St. John’s, Newfoundland 24 November as part of a package of expanded trade cooperation that includes research, energy, digital, aerospace and other fields.

Regarding research, the tone was almost triumphant.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “Canada's joining Horizon Europe, which is the greatest research and innovation mechanism in the world right now.”  Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, was similarly ebullient at a press briefing, saying the deal will bring researchers from the two sides of the North Atlantic closer and she is already anticipating “the innovative breakthroughs and transformative discoveries that will emerge from our joint projects.”

Both leaders, however, were charry with details about the deal – apparently in part because administrative details have yet to be fully resolved.  Von der Leyen said, “we expect the agreement will be signed soon, before mid next year.  And once this is done, researchers in Canada will be able to receive funding from Horizon.” Later, however, EU officials told Science|Business they may put in place a “transitional arrangement” so the Canadian grant applications can start earlier in 2024 – though they still won’t have any money disbursed until the formal signing. See here for more information.

From then, Canadian researchers and academic institutions, as well as corporate R&D labs, will be able to participate in Pillar II of Horizon Europe, a section of the EU’s €95.5 billion research and innovation programme that funds large collaborative projects focused on solving global challenges in climate, energy, digital economy and health, with a budget of €53.5 billion. The vast majority of that money goes to EU researchers – and Canada’s involvement, especially at the start, is likely to be relatively small. At one point during the discussions, which started in 2018, Canadian officials told Science|Business they were expecting something on the order of C$50 million (€33.6 million) in the first few years.

Canadian researchers will also have access to networks of researchers in the EU and 18 other countries associated to Horizon Europe.

A brief history of cooperation

Bilateral, formal scientific relations date back to 1996, when the two sides signed an agreement on scientific and technological cooperation, but it is the first time Canada formally joins an EU framework programme for research as an associated member.

The extent of Canada’s involvement so far in the EU programmes has been small. According to the EU database, in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme that ran from 2014 to 2020 Canadian researchers were formal “participants” in the EU programme on 509 occasions, but actually received only €16.3 million in EU funding for it over those seven years. For Horizon Europe, the current programme which started in 2021, the figures are 133 participations and €5.4 million in funding. The biggest single recipient, over both programmes combined, was the University of British Columbia, with €5 million received. The University of Sherbrooke came second, with €3.2 million.

The discrepancy between participation and funding reflects the current status of Canada as a “third country” without formal membership in the programme – and it’s that status that will change next year, enabling more EU funding to flow.

Hitherto, about half the EU participations entailed individual Canadian experts joining the diverse panels of experts that help the Commission evaluate the thousands of grant proposals it gets each year. Another common form of involvement was Canadian universities participating in the EU’s big talent-exchange programme, the Marie Sklowdowska Curie Actions. Only a small number of participations involved Canadians working alongside EU researchers, with EU funding, on research projects; that’s because for third country researchers, they can normally only receive conventional grant funding if the Commission confirms they have some exceptional talents or resources that aren’t available in the EU – for instance, databases of Canadian Arctic research or local DNA. 

But with Canada signing on next year as an “associated” member of Horizon, Canadian researchers will be able to join and get paid for their work in any of the big collaborative projects in Pillar 2 of Horizon. Full details of the Canadian deal weren’t immediately available, but will have limits. Other association deals, such as one begun this year with New Zealand, require the non-EU government to pay into the central EU funding pot, and then its researchers compete on an equal footing with EU researchers to collect the money. Along the way, both governments track the funding to be sure the money paid into the pot roughly equals the money disbursed as grants. As soon as a pre-arranged limit is reached, the governments can either halt new grants or raise the funding limit.  

Collaboration boost

Von der Leyen said the agreement reached today will give a big boost to previous scientific collaborations and will help both sides work jointly on new clean technologies, biotechnology and digital. “It's a fantastic opportunity to pull our best minds and the best talents on both sides of the Atlantic,” she said.

Alejandro Adem, president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, said the association deal is great news for the country’s research sector. “The granting agencies in Canada look forward to significantly boosting our engagement with the European research ecosystem,” Adem said on X.

EU commissioner for research and innovation Iliana Ivanova said she is “thrilled to welcome Canada to the [Horizon] family.” Previously, Ivanova said she has made it her “personal priority” to bolster international research cooperation and “step up work” on Horizon Europe association deals 

Overall, getting association deals done took longer than many in Brussels expected, but the Canadian announcement is the latest in a string of positive news. The EU reached an agreement with the UK in September after years of political wrangling over post-Brexit trade and Northern Ireland’s status in the EU single market. More recently, Commission officials have announced they can finally start exploratory talks with Switzerland.

Other cooperation areas

Von der Leyen and Trudeau also agreed on a Canada-EU digital partnership which will enable the two sides to work more closely together on sensitive technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, cyber security and digital identity. The partnership will also serve as a forum to advance the accountability of online platforms to mitigate online misinformation.

They also agreed on establishing a Green Alliance to work together on climate policy, and advance research and innovation cooperation in climate change, energy, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, agricultural resilience and food security, ocean sustainability and clean aviation, as well as green and smart cities. Canada is the third country to enter a Green Alliance with the EU, after Norway and Japan.

Editor’s note: This article was updated Nov. 28 to reflect further details of the Canada-EU Horizon deal. For those, see our article here.

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