R&D policy: Six things to look out for in 2022

04 Jan 2022 | News

Initial steps in implementing a new look European Research Area, progress on Horizon Europe association of Switzerland and the UK, France’s Council presidency pushing to ensure EU technology sovereignty and warmer transatlantic R&D relations, are all on the cards

Europe enters the New Year distracted by the fifth and most infectious wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but with many R&D policy issues still high on the agenda. Here’s a list of the main six debates to watch this year:

1. Slovenia wrapped up European Research Area talks, but further political commitment is needed to move forward with the implementation

In November, member states reached an agreement on the revamped European Research Area (ERA), paving the way towards implementation of a single market for research with common investment targets and shared R&D policy priorities, principles and values.

Slovenia helped steer the final steps of the negotiations, but now it is up to the French presidency of the Council of the EU, to implement the plan. Research stakeholders have warned that further political commitment is needed to make sure as many member states as possible work towards the goals set in the ERA policy agenda, from reaching the 3% of GDP investment target, to more intricate topics such as research assessment.

The ERA reform includes devising a new system of evaluating research and academic careers in the EU, which would potentially reward researchers committed to open science and who engage with industry and the society at large. Some countries and research institutions have already started to reshape their assessment rules, but work on this complex issue will continue this year as well.

2. France eyes ambitious innovation-based economic growth model for Europe

On 1st of January France took the helm of the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU with a plan to create a new model for economic growth that is based on technology sovereignty.

During a speech in December, president Emmanuel Macron has complained once more about Europe’s reliance on China and the US for critical technologies such as microprocessors, green hydrogen production and batteries.

Macron said Europe is also falling behind in the development and deployment of innovation in space and defence and invited EU member states to debate the issue and come up with a joint policy agenda at a conference in March.

France also wants to convince other EU member states to spend more of their defence budgets on technologies developed and manufactured in Europe, and hopes more governments will want to work together on common defence R&D projects funded from the EU’s €7.9 billion defence fund.

However, technology does not seem play a big role in the Conference on the Future of Europe, a series of consultations which are expected to lead to a comprehensive reform of the EU, which will conclude in the next few months, before the French presidency of the Council ends. Research and innovation stakeholders have complained that knowledge and technology are not among the nine topics on the conference agenda.  

3. Will Europe’s green ambitions materialise?

Last November, the eyes of the world swivelled to Glasgow, which hosted the COP26 climate conference with the aim of limiting warning to below 1.5 degrees centigrade. Perhaps inevitably, the gathering ended with conclusions that disappointed many, including a mealy-mouthed commitment on “phasing down” but not phasing out, coal power.

But the conference also delivered several big science and innovation announcements, including multi-billion dollar efforts to scale up green power in poorer countries; a new alliance to better diffuse the results of climate change adaptation research; and a push to make clean steel, power generation, road transport and agriculture the cheapest and most available option by 2030.

The question is how researchers and governments put these grand plans into practice in the run up to COP27, which will be held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in November.

Environmentalists hoping COP26 would mark a turning point were disappointed when at the end of December the European Commission released a long-awaited “taxonomy” of green investments that controversially included natural gas and nuclear power – subject to certain rules, like the disposal of nuclear waste. The inclusion of nuclear energy will please reactor-happy France, but Green Party ministers in the new German government have already said publicly they are not pleased.

4. Horizon Europe association: What progress can we expect on Switzerland and the UK?

The EU’s €95.5 billion research and innovation programme is well underway, but Switzerland and the UK are still locked out of Horizon Europe.

The European Commission expects Switzerland to agree to a political agenda to iron out broader disagreements before it can give full access in the R&D programme to Swiss research institutions. The Commission had announced plans to hold talks with Switzerland at the World Economic Forum this month, but the Davos conference has now been postponed until the summer due to COVID-19. Switzerland was blocked from Horizon Europe after the government ended talks over a new cooperation treaty with the EU.

On the other side of the Channel, the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe is tangled up in post-Brexit trade disagreements. The Commission is withholding a final rubberstamp on the UK association deal until it settles a dispute with the UK government over the Northern Ireland Protocol, one of the main sour points in post-Brexit relations between the EU and the UK.

It is still unclear what the Commission expects of the two countries and which are the minimum criteria Switzerland and the UK need to fulfil before they can join Horizon Europe. The question of when the two countries will be associated remains open.

5. Transatlantic R&D relations: warming up, but still lots to get done.

Since coming to office in January 2021, the Biden administration has flipped US policy towards promoting international scientific cooperation. It has been negotiating new science and technology agreements with allies from France to Japan. It has made big promises for climate monitoring and R&D. And it has made encouraging noises about possible cooperation with Horizon Europe.

But still, many in global research remain wary, waiting for more concrete laws, programmes and actions that back up the administration’s promises. Its landmark social policy package, which would include the biggest increases in US R&D funding in years, and massive programmes for climate technology collaboration, is currently stuck in Congress. And in the US R&D bureaucracy, change is moving much more slowly. For instance, despite trumpeting a new deal with the Swiss government on research collaboration, the administration has yet to spell out exactly how that will work and with how much money.

“I think we have to be somewhat cautious about this,” says Richard Lester, associate provost at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “When it comes to collaboration with other parts of the world, including Europe, I think the current administration is certainly singing a very different song [from president Donald Trump],” he says. But the actual policies enacted so far aren’t radically different. “There’s much good intent, and aspiration. But let’s see how it plays out,” Lester said.

“I would say our position is to be cautiously optimistic, and let’s just see what happens.”

6. Science in a pandemic: How long before international research can return to normal?

The biggest achievement of international science was, without doubt, the development of COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year. But most other forms of scientific collaboration were badly crimped during 2021: conferences cancelled, trips scrubbed, lab work postponed and classes moved online or cancelled. The biggest question now: How can international science happen in 2022, under such circumstances?

“It’s very hard to predict how long it will take for things to open up” for international research and education, says Lester. “We’re going to need to find new ways to work, and there will be more virtual collaboration – but that would not be a happy outcome if that was what we ended up with.”

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