Research groups decry focus on applications in Horizon Europe health plan

28 Jan 2021 | News

Leaked draft work programme points to an unhealthy balance between fundamental biology and applied research

EU health

A leaked draft of the work programme for the health cluster in the EU‘s next research programme, Horizon Europe, outlines six key topics it will tackle. But research organisations fear it lacks balance between fundamental and applied research.

At €8 billion for the next seven years, it is the fourth biggest cluster in the pillar of Horizon Europe funding large scale collaborative research projects.

The six overarching topics of the cluster are disease prevention; health and environment; developing healthcare products; healthcare access and quality; digital health tools; and the competitiveness of the health industry. According to the draft, the European Commission plans to launch the first calls in all six topics in 2021.

Research organisations are concerned the ambitious programme lacks funding for discovery research and fundamental biology. “There is too much focus on implementation, on using tools, developing methodology, and this is important, but it is unbalanced,” Marta Agostinho, coordinator of EU-LIFE, an alliance of European life sciences research institutes, told Science|Business. “We are concerned this may dry out the source of new knowledge that we have in Europe.”

The calls are focused mainly on projects producing close-to-market products, which deliver immediate impact, and neglect research generating new knowledge, which is key for the long-term success of healthcare innovation, Agostinho said.

Other research groups echo the concerns. In a statement from September, the European Brain Council, an alliance of major organisations in brain research, urged the Commission to fund more basic research in this field. “To effectively perform translational research and because the brain is a very complex matter, the value of basic research needs to be stressed and investing resources into fundamental research continued,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the Guild, a university lobby group, has also insisted that the Commission keeps a balance between basic research and innovation in the health cluster. “Opportunities for fundamental research in collaborative parts of Horizon 2020 have been limited and require more attention in Horizon Europe,” a 2019 statement says.

Agostinho highlights that the focus on applied research is stronger than ever in Horizon Europe. “We know that the trend is going even further, making our concerns even stronger,” she told Science|Business.

One of the driving factors for this is the cluster’s close ties to the EU‘s new health investment programme, EU4Health. According to the draft work programme, the Commission wants to ensure maximum synergies between the two programmes, with Horizon Europe generating knowledge and EU4Health translating it to market. But said Agostinho, while both programmes are needed, “Right now, as we see it, it is more of a redundancy than synergy.”

There are also concerns about the broad span of the proposed topics. The European Brain Council says the scope of the calls is too broad, which may result in more rejections and more reviewers needed. “We recommend that the scope of the various topics is reviewed and further adjusted and narrowed where needed,” it said.

EU-LIFE shares the concern. The way the calls are set today, “every single project has to contribute to a very broad range of impact,” said Agostinho. “This makes it very difficult for researchers to contribute.”

The draft work programme will see further changes as the Commission finalises the plans. The final document, containing the exact budget and calls for 2021-2022, is set to be published in April, alongside other Horizon Europe work programmes.

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