06 Feb 2020   |   News

Washington to Brussels: We don’t like the Horizon deal you’re offering

At a Science|Business conference, senior US official delivers the sharp message that Trump administration won’t buy the EU’s proposed terms for joining its big research programme

Constance C. Arvis, director of the US State Department’s Office of Science and Technology and Cole Donovan, advanced technology coordinator at the US State Department. Photo: Lysiane Pons, Science|Business

The Trump administration fired a diplomatic shot across the European Commission’s bow, with a public warning that it may reject an offer for the US to join the EU’s next big research programme.

Reading a prepared statement at a Science|Business conference in Brussels on 3 February, Constance C. Arvis, director of the US State Department’s Office of Science and Technology, said that EU-US cooperation in research “is not where we would like it to be” and that the terms the commission has offered for joining its programme “give us pause.”

‘These are significant obstacles’ to a US-EU Horizon deal

Read the full US statement on Horizon Europe here.

In an interview the next day, Arvis said the Trump administration hadn’t yet made a decision on EU science collaboration, but had delivered the statement in order to express “concern” about the EU’s proposed terms.

“If they (the terms) are finalised in the path that we think they may be, that means that for seven years we are going to have to interact with a structure that is fundamentally not going to incentivise science across the Atlantic. And we think that is a very unnecessary and undesirable outcome,” Arvis said.

Arvis read the statement at a roundtable discussion that included Signe Ratso, a deputy director general at the commission’s research department and chief negotiator for membership in the programme. Ratso did not respond publicly to Arvis, but multiple sources said that in the aftermath of the conference private discussions between the two sides took place on 5 February.

The interchange comes at a particularly sensitive point in EU efforts to expand the international reach of its flagship research programme, Horizon Europe, due to start next January with a proposed seven-year budget of €94.1 billion. Besides the 16 EU neighbours already in the existing programme, the commission is discussing Horizon membership with six other non-EU countries: Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea.

Surprise message

The EU had also raised the possibility of the US joining – and while few people expected the Trump administration to say yes, given the strained state of US-EU relations, the sharpness of the official US response this week took several diplomats in Brussels by surprise.

The conflict, however, pre-dates the current team in Washington. The Obama administration had raised objections to the EU’s standard contractual terms to grantees, saying they could compromise intellectual property rights and raise legal problems for US researchers who join Horizon projects. As a result, many US universities have avoided the programme. To try resolving the issue, in 2016 the two sides negotiated an “implementation arrangement” to make clear that Americans who join EU projects without taking the EU money don’t have to sign the standard EU contracts. Many researchers outside Europe participate in EU projects on a pay-your-own-way basis, with funding from their home governments.

But the Americans say they still aren’t happy. “We worked very hard to achieve that [implementing] arrangement,” said Arvis. “We thought the terms were fair. We thought they were flexible. We thought they met a lot of the concerns that we were expressing. But we have found there’s something not implemented. It’s their words on paper…but is not used in situations where it could be.”

In response, EU officials have insisted that they are in fact honouring the agreement, and point out that in any case scores of American companies with European offices – including IBM and GE - are participating in Horizon and signing the contracts without objection. Further, the Commission says it has since 2014 committed €56.8 million in grants to US researchers in the US, with the biggest recipient, the University of California, collecting €4.6 million. In rejoinder, Arvis said 15 per cent of US National Science Foundation grants “involve European partners.”

And EU-US science cooperation goes well beyond Horizon. The US and most EU member states already have bilateral or multilateral deals for specific joint research projects and programmes that, collectively, add up to far more grant money on both sides of the Atlantic than Horizon alone would entail. Horizon is less than 10 per cent of total R&D spending by EU member states.

The problem grows

But in recent months, as the commission gets ready for formal Horizon negotiations with non-EU countries,  the transatlantic contractual disagreement has grown into a bigger issue.

The commission is proposing that non-EU countries, including longstanding partners like Switzerland and Israel, get out of Horizon only as much money as they commit to it, a change from the prior formula that saw some countries ending up with more or less money than they contributed. The draft Horizon legislation, which EU member state officials are due to start discussing on 10 February, also requires that Horizon partners share the same democratic values – a veto to China – and provide reciprocal access for EU researchers in their own national programmes.

In her statement, Arvis said the budgetary terms are “not an incentive to associate” – the legal term for a country formally joining the programme. The proposed terms also don’t allow an international associate any oversight. “In other words, we can pay in, but we don’t get to decide how it’s used,” she said. In addition, the terms would allow the commission “unilaterally to exclude” associated third countries from elements of the programme.

“Taken together, these are significant obstacles,” Arvis said.

When asked what Washington wants, Arvis said, “In a word, flexibility, to allow researchers to determine how to make this work best. We have been trying for a long time to get flexibility. We’ve been trying for a long time to have a dialogue. And we’re still trying to do that. We chose to make a more public statement [this week] because we wanted to make sure that the message was heard.

“What I would like is essentially a conversation between allies,” she said.

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