EU staff propose partnership changes for next research programme

22 Apr 2018 | News

Draft paper on Framework Programme 9 highlights changes in the way industry or researchers in foreign countries can participate

European Commission officials are looking at ways to simplify and reorganise research partnerships involving industry and foreign countries in the next research programme, according to a draft staff working document seen by Science|Business.

 These include plans to “rationalise” several industry-focused competitions found in the current research programme, Horizon 2020, a change in rules on foreign access to EU research, and proposals to sweep away more of the complicated rules and acronyms that bedevil parts of the programme.

The paper, circulating for at least a few weeks, determines a blueprint for Framework Programme 9 and suggests the Commission will propose adopting many of the features of Horizon 2020, but with several substantial modifications. A final version of the paper, a so-called Impact assessment of the new programme, is expected to be published in the first week of June.

Commission officials declined to comment on the paper. But when asked about similar, earlier drafts circulating privately in Brussels, senior Commission officials have cautioned that the final plan in June could be very different – and say they don’t wish to appear to confirm ideas that may not yet have gone through the full, internal Commission approval process. After the publication of this paper in June, the European Council and Parliament will debate the plan for another few years before it takes effect in 2021.

But the paper presents a lengthy, detailed analysis of the programme proposals, and addresses some of the thorniest issues surrounding EU research and innovation. Confusion among companies and member states over the rules for EU partnership schemes means they probably don’t work as well as intended, officials acknowledge. Working out the difference between a public-private partnership and a contractual public-private partnership, for instance, requires a certain kind of patience.

The plans also aim to make funding conditions more attractive for richer countries, where interest in EU research has fallen dramatically. The level of so-called third country – such as the US and China - participation in Horizon 2020 has nearly halved, from 4.7 per cent between 2007 and 2013.

Shifting the furniture

It has become customary for Commission officials to talk about “an evolution, rather than a revolution” for FP9, and the document reflects this language. “The vast majority of the parts and features of Horizon 2020 will be continued, albeit with several optimisations and minor redesigns,” the paper says.

The familiar three-pillar structure of Horizon 2020 – excellent science, industrial leadership and societal challenges – gets a small, but contentious, makeover.

Pillar one would continue to house the European Research Council, Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions and research infrastructures.

Probably the most significant, and controversial, changes are proposed for the second pillar, here titled global challenges, which would mix together elements from the current ‘societal challenges’ and ‘leadership in enabling industrial technologies’ sections. Under pillar two, the seven existing societal challenges in Horizon 2020 are “rationalised” into five broad topics, namely: health, resilience and security, digital and industry, climate, energy and mobility, and food and natural resources.

According to the document, this amalgamation and rationalisation of research areas “will better address EU policy priorities, including meeting the [Sustainable Development Goals], and support industrial competitiveness”, provide “higher visibility for industry’s role in solving global challenges”, and offer “simplified partnerships”.

Companies are not happy: an open letter sent by industry association Business Europe to EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas last month called for the programme to maintain a dedicated industry pillar. “It is hard to understand why the EU would take the risk of putting into question an instrument which has been successful in raising industry participation after a constant drop in FP7,” the letter reads.

Suggestions around boosting industry’s role in global challenges, however tentative, are already causing concern for non-governmental bodies too. "The inclusion of companies in the global challenges section would make the budget spending harder to control, less transparent, and less focused," said Cécile Vernant, head of the Brussels office of EU advocacy group Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung. "We feel companies have an important role to play in solving societal challenges, but some of these challenges - especially in the field of health research - don't have a natural market and need dedicated public funding if we are going to overcome them."

The new European Innovation Council, the core of pillar three, is described as a “streamlined and simple portfolio of support actions dedicated to the emergence and scaling-up of innovative enterprises”. The main justification for creating the new council is that the current programme “does not support enough SMEs that develop breakthrough innovation”, the paper says.

De-cluttering partnerships

Elsewhere in the document, there are suggested changes to two broad categories of research partnership – those between the Commission and industry, such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative, and those between the Commission and states, such as the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership.

According to the document, FP9 would do a spring clean on EU partnerships, and create a “clear, easy to communicate architecture under the umbrella term ‘European Partnership Initiatives’”. Labels like P2P and PPP, which many researchers and policymakers felt were unfortunate additions to EU research lexicon, would be binned.

Similar to other leaked Commission documents, the paper gives greater emphasis on a portion of the programme called “spreading excellence”. Following calls by east European members to spend more money on boosting science and technology capabilities across the EU, the document proposes to “extend” competitions such as teaming, twinning and ERA Chairs, which are designed to help poorer countries catch up.

The document says the next programme intends to “go beyond Horizon 2020” on open access, requiring immediate open access for publications and data – with “robust opt-ups” for the latter – and data management plans.

Substantial changes to international cooperation

The document outlines a change of the rules governing international participation, so rich, foreign countries can join or collaborate with the programme more easily. The rule-change may benefit the UK, which wants to continue participating in future EU research programmes after it leaves the bloc next year.

Access to EU research funding for foreign countries could go from being “rare and exceptional” to “broad and conditional”.

“The programme will extend association to include all countries with excellent R&I capacities and no longer confined to a particular part of the world,” the document says.

Today, association to the Framework Programmes is limited to countries geographically close to Europe.

Except for a few cases, only low and middle-income countries are automatically eligible to receive EU funding - although money can be granted to researchers in so-called third countries if their participation is considered indispensable in a particular research field. For instance, under a reciprocal deal with the US National Institutes of Health, US researchers can participate in some Horizon 2020 health projects and European researchers can join some US-based projects.

Possibilities to provide EU funding to non-associated countries will increase, “but only if they are essential for the success of the action, or if the results can be exploited also in the EU.”

Two types of mission

The document expands on the ‘mission’ funding formula, expected to feature prominently in FP9.

Here, the concept is split into two categories: accelerator and transformer missions.

Accelerator missions “would speed up progress towards a set technical and societal solution”, while transformer missions “focus on transforming an entire social or industrial system within an established timeframe”. One of the concept’s proponents – Mariana Mazzucato, director of University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, and adviser to Moedas – did not make the distinction in a recent report to the Commission.

Demand expected to rise

The authors note the many studies that have documented the positive achievements of Horizon 2020, and say that they expect the number of proposals for FP9 “should be larger.”

Already, demand for EU research grants is heaving, pushing the average success rate down to 12.6 per cent.

The French National Centre for Scientific Research last week described the odds of winning some Horizon 2020 competitions as “ridiculously low”.

A return to a success rate of between 15 to 20 per cent, the average range of success for researchers during 2007-2013, would be “ideal”, the paper says. 

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