Replay 2023: The most significant research and innovation happenings of the year

19 Dec 2023 | News

As 2023 draws to a close, we have put together a list of the stories that shaped research and innovation policy over the past 12 months

2023 has been perhaps one of the most interesting and intense years in European and international research and innovation policy.

The world is grappling with the medium-term economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, growing concerns over a new technology race between the US and China and war in the Middle East.

In Europe, governments are struggling with inflation, shrinking public budgets and the prospect of prolonged economic stagnation. Brussels, the piggy in the middle of the Sino-American technology tussle, is struggling to revive EU’s technological and industrial might, with investments in semiconductors, defence and energy, and legislation to deal with developments in artificial intelligence, so the old continent can remain relevant in the new geopolitical order.

All this is having a significant impact on the world of science and technology. The EU has managed to expand the pool of international partners in Horizon Europe and has redefined the scope of international scientific cooperation, while trying to start preparations for its next multiannual budget and the 10th framework programme for research and innovation.

In our world of research and innovation policy, it's been an eventful year. As we look forward to future developments, here’s a summary of the stories that mattered over the past 12 months.

New leadership

In February, Marc Lemaître took over the reins of the Commission’s research and innovation directorate-general, announcing his agenda for shaping Framework Programme 10 and setting out his views on how to close the R&D gap between eastern and western Europe.

In September, Iliana Ivanova became EU’s new commissioner for research and innovation after Mariya Gabriel went back to Bulgaria to become foreign affairs minister in a new government coalition. Ivanova’s term will be short but decisive: it will shape the final years of Horizon Europe, with the adoption of the strategic plan for the second half of the programme, and the larger-scale kick off of planning for FP10.

Let the FP10 games begin

As early as February, the research and innovation community set out demands for FP10, which is not due to start until 2028. The first consultation organised by the European Commission on the matter produced a clear message: the EU should research grow its research programme, with a clear vision and a good balance between basic and applied science.

Soon after, MEPs Christian Ehler and Maria da Graça Carvalho floated the first budget figure for FP10: €200 billion, double that of Horizon Europe.

But as things stand, member states aren’t feeling generous and EU budget negotiations could spell cuts for Horizon Europe. That story is set to run into 2024 and does not augur well for the FP10 budget.

Meanwhile, member states set up a special task force to help shape FP10 and compile a wish list they plan to publish by June 2024. A draft version seen by Science|Business suggests governments want the balance to shift towards applied research and to see more strategic international cooperation and better synergies with other EU funding streams in the next research programme.

In parallel, the European Commission  assembled an independent adviser group for the next research programme, officially kicking off the drafting of FP10. The group is chaired by Portugal’s former research minister Manuel Heitor, who is one of Europe’s biggest advocates for fairer and better research careers.

Horizon expands internationally

It’s official: the UK is to associate to Horizon Europe at the start of 2024. In September, after multiple false dawns, the UK government and European Commission finally struck a deal after more than two and a half years of delay.

After it became associated in July, New Zealand trumpeted a flying start in Horizon Europe. By October, Kiwi researchers had won four bids, and New Zealand was wanting to expand cooperation with the EU on sensitive technologies like space and quantum.

After lengthy negotiations, the EU and Canada reached agreement for Canadian researchers to join Horizon Europe in 2024. The deal was announced at an EU-Canada summit in St John’s, Newfoundland on 24 November as part of a package of expanded trade cooperation that includes research, energy, digital, aerospace and other fields.

As 2023 drew to a close, the latest step forward in negotiations between Brussels and Bern opened the door for Swiss researchers to finally start applying for European Research Council grants, after Switzerland’s ruling Federal Council signed off a draft negotiating mandate with the EU. That paves the way for formal negotiations to start next year, following 18 months of exploratory talks about everything from food safety to financial markets.

How R&I world is dealing with artificial intelligence

Last month, the European Commission’s directorate for research and innovation set up a new unit to develop EU policy on the use of artificial intelligence in science and industry. The unit ‘E4: Industry 5.0 and AI in science’ is the Commission’s answer to the revolution generative AI promises to bring to science. Generative AI models are being fed enormous amounts of data, based on which they can write scientific papers, computer code, and – key to RTD – research proposals. 

The Commission has also updated the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity to include guidance on AI.

In the UK, an international summit on AI safety concluded with the signature of a declaration on the dangers of AI, but EU universities were all but excluded from the proceedings.

Earlier this month, EU leaders agreed on the AI Act, new legislation that will impose extra checks on cutting-edge general-purpose AI that is owned by a handful of US and Chinese companies. Researchers have not been given the right to dig into these models.

The world gets serious about research security

Despite working to prevent EU technology leaking to China’s military, the European Commission is continuing to fund at least five research projects involving some of China’s top military-linked universities. A Science|Business investigation found five ongoing EU research projects that include China’s ‘Seven Sons of National Defence’ universities, in network security, heat transfer and drones.

As part of a broader push to tighten security, science funding agencies in the US, UK and Canada are considering setting up a network to share information about security risks affecting international research projects, according to a senior US science official.

In Brussels, the Commission is preparing the ground for a proposal for Council recommendations on enhancing research security in the face of growing threats from foreign actors. This is another sign the EU is reeling back from the mantra of openness, replacing it with the more cautious, ‘as open as possible, as restricted as necessary’ as geopolitical tensions ramp up.

The perils of such a retreat were illustrated by draft legislation in Australia, which scientists said  could jeopardise collaborative research with countries other than the US and UK, including the EU.

Universities are trying to keep up with new security rules that already have an impact on international partnerships, the scope for scientists from high-risk countries to work on sensitive technology at the university of their choice, and on the awareness among universities that times have changed and that openness is not that absolute anymore.

War upends Israeli research and innovation

As if the war in Ukraine was not enough, the terrorist attack by Hamas at the end of October and the war that ensued has upended the work of researchers and innovators in Israel, a country known for its R&D prowess. This is posing dilemmas for countless start-up companies over whether to continue with, or scale back growth plans, and leaves a question mark hanging over Israel’s technological future.

With many Israeli academics mourning the deaths of students and colleagues, the impact on science is not top of anyone’s mind. But given Israel’s significance in the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme, the war has delayed dozens of projects, and scientists in Israel pleaded with Brussels for flexibility.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up