New Zealand trumpets flying start in Horizon Europe

05 Oct 2023 | News

Kiwi researchers have won four bids so far, although this could create budget headaches for Wellington. New Zealand also wants to collaborate with the EU on sensitive technologies like space and quantum

The signing ceremony of New Zealad's association to Horizon Europe in July this year. From left to right: Marcos Alonso Alonso, Spanish Permanent Representative to the EU; Valdis Dombrovskis, executive vice-president of the European Commission; Chris Hipkins, Prime Minister of New Zealand; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; Damien O’Connor, New Zealand minister for trade and export growth. Photo: Dati Bendo / European Union

New Zealand has won four Horizon Europe bids so far, outperforming its own expectations but raising questions over how it can control participation costs if they spiral beyond Wellington’s forecasts.

The first geographically distant country to associate to the framework programme, New Zealand’s experience holds lessons for Canada, South Korea and Japan, all of which are in talks on whether to sign up too. Cost controls are a key part of the negotiations.

From January to April this year, Kiwi researchers have been part of 12 bidding consortia, of which four have been successful. That’s a one in three success rate, compared to 21% anticipated by the government.

About €2.2 million in funding is set to go to New Zealand partners for these successful projects. The budget for the entire year is already set at €2.1 million, and a correction mechanism will see this revised up or down depending on actual performance. And since April, more bids have gone in, taking the total number of bids beyond 20.

“Our researchers piled in as quickly as they possibly could, working over the Christmas period to get their applications ready,” said Iain Cossar, general manager of science, innovation and international policy at the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), which handles research.

Speaking to Science|Business while on a visit to Brussels, Cossar welcomed New Zealand’s performance in Horizon Europe and insisted Wellington had a plan if costs escalate beyond what is expected. “There’s a whole range of options,” he said.

“First of all, we’ve got quite a bit of money set aside for this, so we think we’re OK,” he said.

Secondly, MBIE could “reprioritise” its existing funding towards Horizon Europe spending, he said.

Thirdly, MBIE could “easily go back to the government and ask for more money, again, on the basis of the success of the programme,” Cossar said. 

International links are so central to New Zealand’s wider national strategy that Horizon Europe would be a priority for additional spending. “I can't stress this enough,” said Cossar. “This international connection piece sits at the heart of both the science strategy, but also the current economic strategy and make sure we're connected to the rest of the world.”

The final option, “if we really had to”, would be to dig into university overhead and back office costs, said Cossar. In any event, the ministry insists it will not be caught out by an unexpectedly big Horizon bill, as Kiwi researchers must register if they want to put in a bid, giving the government plenty of warning.

New Zealand revamps its strategy

The four successful bids have not yet been publicly announced, as the grant agreements are not signed. But they span three Horizon Europe clusters, focusing on tools for personal clinical care; democracy and social inclusion; and digital technologies for plant health, said a spokeswoman for the ministry.

This spread of topics is good news for a country looking to move beyond its traditional R&D strengths in areas like forestry, agriculture and the environment.

This focus “served us very, very well over the last 20 years,” said Cossar. “But is it going to serve us in the same way for another 20?”

A white paper last year outlined how New Zealand’s research system should change, and recommended a series of new initiatives, including an international talent attraction scheme.

Before arriving in Brussels, Cossar visited Finland, an equally small nation that has nonetheless carved out a high-tech niche for itself and regularly sits near the top of innovation rankings. 

“Our systems are actually relatively similar,” said Cossar of the Finns. “But they've evolved theirs and done some really interesting things around how they've organised themselves institutionally, how they thought about investment, how they thought about focus.”

There’s no plan to “down weight” curiosity-driven research, “but we are trying to bring a bit more focus to where we invest,” he said. 

However, before the science system can be rejigged, the country needs a new government. Kiwis will go to the polls on October 14th to elect a new government. Current polling points to a tight race, with the anti-immigration New Zealand First party looking like a possible kingmaker in coalition negotiations after the vote. 

Sensitive technologies

New Zealand will never lead the world in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum technology or space, Cossar admitted. But the country can create pockets of cutting-edge research, for example in the safe use of AI.

Cossar – who also heads the New Zealand Space Agency - and has been discussing in Brussels how New Zealand might collaborate on space and quantum technology through Horizon Europe.

However, this risks running afoul of protectionist instincts within the European Commission, which in 2021 proposed excluding associated countries Israel, Switzerland and the UK from space and applied quantum calls.

Cossar points out that New Zealand has already done deals with the US to collaborate on space technology, for example. “There are legitimate questions that the EU can ask, we think we have good answers for them, we just want to have that conversation,” he said.

The challenge of distance

Despite association to Horizon Europe, the brutal fact of geography remains – Cossar admits the time difference between Brussels and Wellington was a “real challenge” during negotiations. Meetings at awkward times “weren’t very pleasant for either party,” he said, although was full of praise for his Commission counterparts who secured the deal.

Given this distance, doesn’t it make more sense for New Zealand to focus on its science links with East Asia, where there is more working day overlap? “We wouldn’t rule that out,” said Cossar.

But Horizon Europe “rests on a common set of values and principles,” making the decision to join an easy one, he said.

For the European Commission, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes it more important than ever that democracies in the EU, Canada, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand stick together scientifically. Although association talks predate the invasion, “Horizon Europe is one way to help ensure those connections,” said Cossar.

As for the future, the assumption in Wellington is that New Zealand will remain a regular part of framework programmes – or at least, the industry-focused consortia that make up Pillar 2 of the programme (New Zealand is not associated to the European Research Council, which supports bottom-up science).

“I would suggest that we would anticipate joining the successor [programme],” said Cossar.

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