Horizon Europe: 2023 winners and losers revealed

18 Jan 2024 | News

Italy’s share of grants plummeted, while Belgium, Estonia and Lithuania had an excellent year. Excluded from much of the programme, UK participation fell further, and so did that of China as geopolitical tensions grew

Last year was the second in which the EU’s €95 billion Horizon Europe research and innovation programme was fully up and running - and with a new year, comes a chance to see how 2023 shook out.

Science|Business has trawled through the European Commission’s data to see which countries and universities did particularly well – or poorly – last year, and the wider politics and policy that might explain the ups and downs.

There’s always a natural ebb and flow to grant successes and disappointments, and 2024 might show a very different story to 2023.

But still, here are four key trends that emerge from last year’s data.

Italy loses out as Belgium rakes in grant money

The big loser of 2023 was Italy, whose share of the Horizon pot in 2023 dropped by nearly a fifth.

In 2022, institutions in the country won €1.5 billion in grants, but last year, that dropped to €958 million.

This absolute drop isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, as only around €12.2 billion was distributed in 2023 compared to €16 billion in 2022, but nonetheless, Italy lost out compared to other EU states.

Italian observers believe this could be because researchers in the country suddenly had an influx of funds from the country’s Recovery and Resilience pandemic recovery package, and so didn’t need to compete as hard for EU grants.

“The effort to maximize the opportunities offered by these resources may have contributed to slightly and temporarily diverting researchers' efforts away from EU funding programmes,” suggested Massimo Spadoni, head of EU relations at the Italian National Research Council, which alone was given €850 million from the recovery fund to distribute to researchers around the country.

Researchers were extremely busy working up proposals and creating consortia for the Recovery and Resilience calls that were launched in 2022, said Nadia Raffaelli, a biochemistry professor at Marche Polytechnic University. “This might have contributed to a reduced attention to Horizon Europe,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands grew its share of grant money and overtook Italy.

Belgium was also a big winner in 2023. It increased its share of grant money by almost a quarter.

Two of the Baltic states – Estonia and Lithuania – also did very well in 2023, each increasing their share by around half.

Apart from that success story, there was little sign of a shift towards Widening countries that typically receive little research and innovation money.

However Ukraine, despite Russia’s invasion and occupation the previous year, managed to double its share of Horizon Europe money in 2023, albeit from a very low base. It won €20.3 million in 2023, up from €13 million the previous year.

UK participation fell further; Swiss held steady

Two stalwarts of EU framework programmes, the UK and Switzerland, remained excluded from large parts of Horizon Europe in 2023, and almost entirely blocked from receiving money from Brussels, as higher-level politics stalled association talks.

In September last year, after many false dawns, the UK finally signed a deal to associate to the programme in 2024. Swiss talks to do the same are also proceeding apace.

But although UK researchers can now apply again on a par with EU counterparts, there is a mountain to climb for the UK to rebuild its once strong position in the framework programme.

In 2023, UK participations – the number of institutions joining projects – fell to make up just 3.85% of the total in the industrially-focused pillar II of Horizon Europe, the only part of the framework programme UK researchers were still able to join.

To put that in context, it’s less than half the participation rate the UK had when it was an EU member during the previous framework programme, Horizon 2020.

The reason for this continued withering of engagement was likely uncertainty over the UK’s future in Horizon Europe, according to Jamie Arrowsmith, director of Universities UK International.

The UK government put in a guarantee scheme to give UK-based applicants reassurance that they would be backed by money from London if they were part of successful consortia bidding for Pillar II projects.

But despite this, the years of political deadlock over association was “very unsettling,” said Arrowsmith. “Anecdotally, we picked up that many institutions were seeing very similar, and in some cases better, success rates, but the volume of applications had fallen significantly.”

There are many reasons for this - UK partners maybe not being prioritised, but also UK based researchers not wanting to invest the energy into proposals with the UK’s future uncertain,” Arrowsmith said.

Switzerland, however, managed to maintain its Pillar II participation rate in in 2022 and 2023 despite, like the UK, being unable to associate. Like London, Bern has also put in a guarantee scheme to allow Swiss researchers to take part in Pillar II using domestic money.

Chinese involvement falls to historic low

Rising geopolitical tensions between the EU and China also appear to be reflected in the data for 2023: Chinese participation in Horizon Europe dipped to a historic low.

There were only 27 instances of Chinese institutions participating in projects that signed grants in 2023. That’s lower than at any time during the last three framework programmes. You have to go back even further, to 2000, to find a time when Chinese participation was lower – and then, Chinese scientific prowess was only just beginning to emerge onto the world stage.

One caveat: if you slice the data slightly differently, and look at projects with at least one Chinese entity, 2023 doesn’t look quite as bad a year compared to the total number of Chinese participations.

Nonetheless, 2023 still looks like a year of serious underperformance, particularly because during the third year of a framework programme, collaboration should really kicking into gear. In 2016 under Horizon 2020, for example, there were 124 participations by Chinese institutions.

This drop-off coincides with sharpening rhetoric from the Commission towards China and concern over an unequal scientific relationship; in March 2023, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned that the EU must make sure its technologies do not fall into the hands of the Chinese military.

In the limited number of projects launched with China so far under Horizon Europe, there has been a pivot towards environmentally-focused work, rather than more sensitive topics, and the EU has prohibited China from joining in close-to-market Innovation Actions.

The biggest university winners in 2023

The league table of big money winners from EU framework programmes are inevitably dominated by national research organisations, the France’s CNRS and Germany’s Max Planck Society, simply because they are so big.

But strip out research networks and institutes, and focus purely on universities, and it’s possible to get a more meaningful sense of which institutions had a particularly good year in 2023.

Belgian, Dutch, Danish, Italian and Irish universities feature prominently in the top 20 recipients – but none from Widening countries that typically lag on receiving framework programme money.

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