The Science|Business news service is on a summer break until 22 August, but here are some of what we regard as the most important developments of 2022
It’s August and most research and innovation policy wonks have left Brussels. But, if you have summer homework and you need to read up on this year’s main developments in research and innovation, we’ve got you covered.
In our view, there have been two main stories this year for EU R&I policy: international chaos, and Horizon.
To begin with, since January everything we knew about international research and innovation policy has radically changed. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the EU and most member states cut scientific ties with Russia and Belarus, forcing scientists to rethink the principles underlying their plans for international cooperation.
At the same time, the European Commission is rethinking its R&D policy to fit a new industrial agenda that seeks to turn the EU into a technology fortress, that can design and develop the technologies it needs without having to count on unreliable international partners.
The plan relies in part on Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5 billion research and innovation programme, but the Commission is still struggling to get parts of it running smoothly. It is also revising its BFF list, talking with Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and other nations about joining Horizon Europe while putting relations on hold with Switzerland and the UK.
All in all, long-held beliefs about how R&D policy in Europe works are up in the air, but we’ve come up with a list of stories from the past six months to help our readers navigate these uncertain times.
Promising Horizon figures: According to European Commission preliminary data, Horizon Europe grant success rates are up compared with Horizon 2020, thanks to an increased budget and side-lining the Swiss and Brits.
Success rates for researchers applying for Horizon Europe grants stand at 15.8%, a marked improvement on the 12% success rate in Horizon 2020, but some warn it’s too early to assume the improvement will be sustained. Read more in our story from July.
Delayed start to EU start-up fund: Despite the seemingly good news on Horizon Europe, last month MEPs voted to withhold €811 million from the European Innovation Accelerator (EIC) in 2023. The EIC is the EU’s attempt to launch its own fund for scaling up innovative start-ups and is one of the main novelties in Horizon Europe.
However, the rollout of the scheme has been plagued with administrative issues. After months of waiting for the Commission to fix internal management issues and start distributing equity funding to start-ups, Parliament’s research and industry committee moved to force the issue.
Unfinished business: The Commission’s outgoing research chief admitted more work is needed to get the EIC operating smoothly. In a swansong interview, Jean-Eric Paquet hailed Horizon Europe and the rebooting of the European Research Area, but acknowledged more work is needed to get the European Innovation Council operating smoothly. “It's true that the EIC is still to be consolidated,” he said. “We are now constructing it.”
Horizon missions and partnerships take shape. A key part of Horizon is its massive, public-private partnerships mobilizing R&D towards specific policy goals – such as climate-neutral cities, hydrogen-power development, clean aviation and health research.
Transparency in Horizon: Unapproved drafts of Horizon Europe work programmes began circulating again online. The Commission is expected to publish work programmes for the third and fourth years of its €95.5 billion programme by the end of this year, but early versions have started appearing online – unofficially.
The first Horizon Europe work programmes also leaked online last year in January, prompting criticism on the Commission’s handling of documents which are meant to be kept under embargo until official publication. Despite the Commission’s rules, a select group of institutes and universities usually get an exclusive preview of the crucial documents, well ahead of the first round of calls. To counteract that, Science|Business routinely publishes any drafts it receives in our Horizon Papers section.
The Ecosystem: This year we’ve launched a new weekly column on Europe’s innovative start-ups. In one installment, our columnist Ian Mundell writes how EU start-ups get inventive thanks to proof of concept grants from the European Research Council, the frontier-research part of Horizon. Enterprising academics are using the prestigious ERC funding to build companies and negotiate Europe’s market failures.
Meanwhile, proposals to build a European Health Data Space (EHDS) have received a warm welcome from digital health start-ups, which are frustrated by obstacles to scaling-up within Europe. If the plan succeeds in harmonising electronic health data between EU member states, it will already have done these entrepreneurs a huge favour. But gaps and uncertainties in the proposals may yet put a dent in the innovation gains foreseen by the Commission. For example, who will make reluctant healthcare providers release their data? And who will pay the costs of setting the data free?
THE NEW WORLD (DIS)ORDER
Critical technologies: In an exclusive interview, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel told Science|Business that Russia’s invasion in Ukraine has upended long-held dogmas on international cooperation, including in science and technology.
The European Commission is now using that momentum to speed up the development of innovation and promote self-sufficiency in critical areas, such as green energy, semiconductors and health. “The war forces us to change the pace and to think strategically, and to also have allies that share our principles and values and can link words to actions,” Gabriel said.
EU knowledge spillover to Chinese military: Speaking of dogmas in international science cooperation, European universities came under fire this year over work with Chinese military. Institutions collaborated with the Chinese military on quantum cryptography as recently as 2018, but a sea-change in attitude to EU-Sino relations forced some universities to tighten their rules. Others say they will continue to work with Chinese military universities, at least while a backlog of agreed projects clears.
Want to give military R&D a boost? Not so fast: Germany’s pacifist universities are against the militarisation of EU R&D. More than 70 research institutions have an explicit ban on defence-related projects, and there are few signs that the Ukraine invasion will convince them to shift course.
Politicians across Europe demanded that the EU urgently invest in new military technologies to defend itself, while NATO has launched its own R&D fund. But a “civil clause” constitutionally prohibits dozens of German universities from conducting defence-related research, raising doubts over the extent to which Europe’s biggest economy will be able to participate in a pivot to military R&D.
Speaking of NATO: The military alliance has launched a €1 billion fund for high tech start-ups working on dual use technologies, which is meant to complement plans for a network of technology accelerators and test labs.
Open science no more: All this talk of limiting international cooperation and boosting investments in military R&D has left many research policy wonks wondering how the world can keep science open but also secure? G7 nations are working on an answer.
The Brexit effect: UK winners of EU research grants recall their anguish over an ultimatum issued by the European Research Council this summer. Some of Europe’s leading scientists were given two months to make a life-changing decision: move house, family and lab to the EU and keep prestigious grants - or stay put and lose them. Sleepless nights ensued, they told Science|Business
In other Brexit news, Britain has no shortage (yet) of commercial ideas in its universities, nor of venture funding, but the talent pool for academic start-ups is shrinking.
Meanwhile in Ukraine: Research leaders in the war-torn country say the West should come up with a ‘Marshall Plan’ for research and innovation. In a letter to Science|Business, two research leaders in Ukraine wrote down their vision for the recovery and modernisation of Ukraine’s R&D system and asked the EU and the US for help.
The EU rushed to help scientists who fled Ukraine with grants and jobs, but the Ukrainian researchers said they need bullets, not grants, as Russian invaders continued to bomb cities, civilian shelters and infrastructure across the country.
War flashback: Shortly after the war broke out, the executive director of the National Research Foundation of Ukraine (NRFU) told Science|Business how Russia’s invasion has crippled efforts to reform research funding. Back in February, Olga Polotska helped deliver food and supplies across Kyiv during the day. At night, she was going back to an underground shelter from where she was trying to keep herself and her agency alive.