Horizon 2020 review underlines need for more ambition in Framework Programme 10, research leaders say

30 Jan 2024 | News

Outcomes – and shortcomings – of the 2014-2020 research programme are yet another argument in favour of a bigger budget next time around

With some reservations, Horizon 2020 was a success, according to the final evaluation of the programme. Research leaders tell Science|Business this should be seen as an incentive to make the 2028 – 2034 Framework Programme 10 bigger and better.

The €75.6 billion Horizon 2020 is expected to contribute around €429 billion to the EU economy by 2040, has to date generated 276,000 peer-reviewed publications and fed a huge amount of funding into key policy areas, such climate action and health.

“The evaluation reaffirms that Europe could not, cannot and will not do without a robust framework programme,” said Joep Roet, deputy director at the Netherlands house for Education and Research.

Ole Petter Ottersen, acting secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities said, “The message to decision makers should be clear: according to the report, each euro spent in Horizon 2020 will result in five euros’ worth of benefit for [each] European citizen by 2040.”

For Mattias Björnmalm, secretary general of the university association CESAER, the numbers only tell part of the story. There are societal benefits that cannot be counted in euros and beyond its economic impact, the programme was successful in boosting scientific excellence and technological leadership and advancing digital and green transitions. Here, the framework programmes for research and innovation excels and provides one of the strongest and most direct benefits of all EU funding programmes,Björnmalm said.

Horizon 2020’s biggest shortcoming was perhaps that there simply wasn’t enough of it. The programme would have needed an additional €159 billion to fund all high-quality proposals.

“The Horizon 2020 budget did not truly match Europe’s scientific capacity, nor the scale of the challenges that needed to be addressed,” says Kamila Kozirog, policy analyst at the European University Association. This should be remedied in the next framework programme, due to start in 2028, she adds.

This is not the first such call. The European Parliament, alongside research lobby groups, have been campaigning for a €200 billion budget for the next framework programme, FP10.

Bigger and better

Beyond the need for a bigger budget, there are more lessons to be learnt from the evaluation, including how to maximise societal impact, boost translation of research through to commercialisation, and make it easier to take part. As the Commission begins drafting FP10, talks on how address these shortcomings should take centre stage.

“Horizon Europe has started to tackle some of these areas, which is much welcomed, but there is more work that needs to be done,” says Björnmalm.

One example of simplification between Horizon 2020 and the current programme is the introduction of lump sum funding, which frees beneficiaries from financial reporting across the course of a project, reducing paperwork. But many are still wary of the new system because it puts more pressure on doing costings at the proposal stage of a project. Björnmalm wants the Commission to address remaining uncertainties before a broader roll out.

Similarly, the Widening measures introduced in Horizon 2020 went some way to reducing the research and innovation gap between the east and west, but many of these countries still lack the means to access EU research funding.

“Widening remains one of the key challenges for the programme, and the current measures are not sufficient for effectively narrowing the gap,” says Kozirog.

Björnmalm wants to see better synergies, with EU cohesion funds complementing the Widening measures under FP10.

In addition, there’s a broader discussion to be had on how to best exploit links with other EU and national funds, as the Commission acknowledges in the Horizon 2020 review. “We should put synergies at the heart of the design of the EU funding programmes 2028-2034,” says Björnmalm.

Universities in particular want to see a better balance between fundamental and applied research in the next framework programme, which they say could boost its societal impact.

As the EU framework programmes become increasingly innovation and policy-driven, more and more funding is dedicated to applied research and innovation projects, at the expense of fundamental research and smaller projects.

To combat this, Ottersen hopes to see further analysis of how to maximise research impact in FP10, factoring in how generating new knowledge contributes to societal impact. The indicators used in Horizon 2020 were weak and too narrow in scope to tease this out, the Commission has admitted.

The evaluation includes important observations about the approach to societal impact that should trigger a frank discussion about the expectations and on how progress should be assessed,” says Ottersen. “The societal impact would be improved with a better integration of social sciences and humanities and avoiding an overly technological focus of the programme.”

Kozirog agrees the potential contribution of these disciplines and of interdisciplinary research remains insufficiently explored in the framework programmes, as the Horizon 2020 evaluation reveals.

While interdisciplinary projects are very much encouraged in Horizon Europe, the involvement of social sciences and humanities researchers remains limited. Many, Kozirog notes, “express their frustration over the absence of clear guidance on how to develop interdisciplinary project consortia.”

These issues may be addressed in the next chapter of evaluation of EU framework programmes, with further analysis likely to come next year when the Commission presents the interim evaluation of the current Horizon Europe framework programme.

Roet hopes that will provide insights into the consequences of merging Horizon 2020’s merging technological development and societal challenges pillars into one under Horizon Europe. This could give a further steer on the right science and policy mix to maximise the impact of FP10.

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