Europe needs a strong and strategic research budget, says EU commissioner

26 Mar 2024 | News

In an interview with Science|Business, Iliana Ivanova outlines her goals for the rest of her term, where Europe stands in the global technology race - and the need to discuss if dual use military/civilian research should feature in FP10

EU research commissioner Iliana Ivanova. Photo credits: Aurore Martignoni / European Union 

European research commissioner Iliana Ivanova has called for honest and frank discussions with EU leaders about the bloc’s strategic priorities and the need to back further investment in research and innovation.

“We need to talk about where we want to be in the near future and in the more distant future, and to position ourselves strategically and then to realise that this will not happen if we don't invest now, invest properly and adequately in research and innovation,” she told Science|Business.

Ivanova laid out her priorities for the remaining months of her short mandate, saying securing a strong budget for research and boosting European competitiveness are among her key goals.

“It is important not only to call for more money, but also to be very responsible in how effectively and efficiently we're spending it, because in these times of more constraints, I think we would rather expect to see less and less available,” Ivanova said. 

Ivanova became commissioner in September last year following the resignation of former commissioner Mariya Gabriel, who returned to her native Bulgaria to enter domestic politics. Her current mandate last until the autumn, when a new commission will be chosen following European Parliament elections in June.

Asked about future plans, Ivanova said for now her focus is on concluding this term and she is not yet looking further ahead. 

The research commissioner is under no illusions about the challenge of winning funding for research, given the global challenges, such as Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, that are weighing heavily on European purse strings. As one sign of what these means for research, the European Council recently agreed to cut €2.1 billion from Horizon Europe’s 2025 - 2027 budget. Separately, the Commission is diverting €1.5 billion to defence research as part of a newly launched Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform initiative.

This does not bode well for the next research framework programme, FP10, due to begin in 2028. Several university alliances, research groups, industry representatives and members of the European Parliament have called for a budget of €200 billion, over double Horizon Europe’s €95.5 billion budget. 

Ivanova is adamant the bloc must continue to support research and innovation, saying it is the “most sensible investment” the EU can make. The EU needs to overcome its resistance to public funding of research, with the EU still some way short of its now 20-year-old target to increase spending on R&I to 3% of the overall GDP. The latest data, from 2022, shows the EU average is 2.24%, down 2.27% in 2021. 

The imperative to increase R&I investment comes as Europe strives to keep pace with countries including the US and China. A European analysis published last year shows the US, China, Japan and South Korea all have significantly higher levels of private investment in R&D than the EU.

Ivanova highlighted the EU’s weakness in translating and commercialising its strong research outputs as a particular problem. “We don’t just want to compete not to lose, but to compete to win,” she said, referencing the global race in technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and semiconductors.

The European Innovation Council, the principal start-up support funder in Horizon Europe, has been a “game changer” in the EU’s venture capital market, but its €10 billion budget is not enough on its own, Ivanova said. More links must be made with industry to bring in private investment. 

Dual use

This January the European Commission published a white paper setting out the pros and cons of incorporating dual-use research that has the potential of being used for military or defence purposes in FP10 - and ending the convention that the EU’s research framework programmes are for civilian applications only. 

The white paper looks at what more can be done within the current legal framework; at removing the civilian only stricture to allow dual use funding; and at the possibility of setting up a separate funding instrument to carry out R&D with dual use potential. 

Feedback on the preferred option among stakeholders has so far been “mixed”, Ivanova said, with less than 50% of the expected responses received. 

But the discussion on incorporating dual use research into FP10 is essential. “We can no longer afford to operate with the freedom of not considering what the benefit of potential dual use could be,” Ivanova said. 

On whether using the framework programme to fund research with applications in defence would encourage member states to up the budget, Ivanova said she would like to hope that they will see the overall general strategic importance of investing in research and innovation, “regardless of dual use potential”. 

Simplification and accessibility

Ivanova been insistent about making Horizon Europe funding easier to access, particularly for smaller businesses and first-time applicants. One step in this direction was revamping the funding and tenders portal

Another is increasing upfront lump sum funding as an alternative to cost reporting, where grantees have to track and declare expenses during the project. 

Lump sum funding is already used in several areas of Horizon Europe. In 2023, the Commission expected to award between 10% and 15% of Horizon Europe grants this way, up from 2% in 2022. 

In 2024, lump sums will be introduced to the European Innovation Council and the European Research Council’s Advanced Grants.

Ivanova said that this type of funding will be expanded to further areas of the programme in the coming years. Commission insiders previously told Science|Business that lump sums could be applied to up to 30% of grants in the near future.

Ivanova also wants Horizon Europe funding to be more accessible for researchers and entrepreneurs in countries with weaker research systems. The €3 billion Widening initiative is designed to support excellent science in lagging countries, and Ivanova is supportive of it. 

However, she acknowledged Widening alone will not close the R&I performance gap between the EU’s best and worst performers and member states need to increase national budgets. 

The Commission is planning to launch an accelerator scheme in 2025 to support companies in Widening countries in accessing the EIC. Several other pilot initiatives under the Widening are to be announced in the coming months, under revised 2023-2024 work programmes, but Ivanova could not give any details at this stage. 

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