Where next for EU science? Part 1

16 May 2019 | News

In a new series, experts weigh in on the big priorities for the next term of the European Commission and the Parliament. In this first instalment, the focus is on shaping the EU’s new research programme, Horizon Europe

With a week to go before the EU elections, Science|Business is asking experts to forecast the big priorities for the next term of the EU, which runs from 2019 to 2024.

Here, nine policy experts and researchers discuss the most pressing issues for the next research programme, Horizon Europe, including what topics it should push to the fore, and how it should spend the money.

Sort out the budget

When the new class of MEPs and commissioners takes office later this year, there will be roughly one and a half years left to put the final touches on Horizon Europe, and get it over the line for a 2021 start.

Even as the new generation of leaders are picking the confetti from their hair, one thought should be foremost in their minds: finalising the EU budget.

In its last term, parliament called for a Horizon Europe budget of at least €120 billion – somewhat ahead of the commission’s proposal of €94.1 billion. Thomas Jorgensen, senior policy coordinator with the European University Association, is optimistic that the new batch of MEPs will continue their cross-party support for reaching the higher target.

“There are good reasons to believe that the parliament will remain committed to European investments in research and education,” said Jorgensen. “Parties from across the spectrum voted for the programmes.”

There is an “historical opportunity” for Europe to reposition itself in science, in a moment when China “most likely will become the leading world economy and the US will start struggling with the long-term effects of a closed foreign policy,” said Nuno Nunes, professor of human-computer interaction at Técnico Lisboa.

“We need to keep investing in research and innovation to keep up with the emerging countries and create new opportunities for companies and jobs. The western domination of the globe is over and this is both a threat and an opportunity for Europe,” Nunes says.

The north-south global divide may soon become an east-west divide, he added. “I think if these elections don’t tear apart the already complicated political system in most European countries we might be able to reposition ourselves. This is particularly relevant for Portugal since we might end up in the less interesting quadrant of Europe, as the Atlantic loses its geopolitical importance,” said Nunes.

A majority in Brussels and the academic community may favour big EU spending for research, but what really matters is the mood in the member states. Governments must decide the final amount as part of a unanimous agreement on the EU’s overall financial plan. With Brexit still hogging the political agenda in Brussels that agreement is unlikely to happen before the end of 2019,

Search for improvements

While the new MEPs probably wouldn’t mind putting their immediate stamp on things, any overhaul of Horizon Europe is unlikely. The new class should improve the various programmes inside Horizon Europe, rather than rush to replace them, experts say.

The new legislators arriving in Brussels in the autumn will theoretically have the power to influence the Horizon Europe agenda, but will have to contend with decisions made by their predecessors.

It may be that new MEPs arrive “too late to substantially influence Horizon Europe,” said Peter Fisch, a former civil servant in the commission’s DG Research.

“The best the parliament could do in the meantime is to scrutinise the existing system and to search for improvements. Personally, I am not very optimistic this will actually happen, but I think it is important to see the broader picture and the – in a sense – "historic" opportunity,” said Fisch.

While the next parliament may have deeper ideological divisions than ever before, with populists expected to increase their representation in Brussels, there is unlikely to be a great desire to rip up the Horizon Europe proposal already voted on by departing MEPs.  

But there could be squabbles over the programme’s research agenda. One of the core tasks in planning for the start of Horizon Europe will be agreeing the exact shape of the new large-scale R&D programmes, or missions. While the parliament and the council of the EU have agreed five broad mission themes – adapting to climate change; cancer; healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters; smart, climate-neutral cities; and soil health and food – the details still have to be thrashed out.

“I hope that the new [research] commissioner does not re-invent the wheel,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. He urges the next administration to stick with the “massive areas of change that have already been initiated by the outgoing commission. The include getting open science right [with] a realistic timeline, enabling the missions to achieve their full potential, [and] ensuring that we do well on innovation without undermining the EU’s support for the entire research pipeline.”

Daniel David, pro rector for research at the Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania, says the impact of EU research and innovation policies have been “pretty good, bordering on very good” for Europe, but the new parliament should be more ambitious and acknowledge that competing parts of the world also have “outstanding” policies. “[There should be] bolder investments in basic research that shifts paradigms and [leads to] innovations with competitive advantages,” David said. 

Incoming MEPs need to be ready to make a cogent case for basic research, said Marta Agostinho, coordinator of EU-LIFE, an alliance of Europe’s top life sciences research labs. “The most important message is to address curiosity driven research. This is becoming less and less evident to everybody. We need to reverse this trend because Europe could fall behind other regions of the world, economically speaking.”

Any research agenda will also need to be heavily influenced by the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. "The goal of universities is to [play] a serving role to society and contribute to solution[s] for the problems and challenges society is confronted with," he said. 

Keep politics at bay

The next EU class will get to debate Horizon Europe’s direction, what sort of questions it pursues, even how useful the research is.

Pierre Barthélemy, executive director of the European Chemical Industry Council, is calling for the new Brussels administration to take bolder actions to address climate change, and involve industry as much as possible.

“We are very pleased to see a second pillar on industrial competitiveness [in Horizon Europe],” he says.

His plea is for Brussels to continue running several big industry-led projects, including the Bio-based Industries partnership and SPIRE, which allots funding for new sustainable practices. “We hope for a parliament that will understand the role of industry and the importance of innovation to address global challenges,” says Barthélemy.

There will be a certain amount of political pressure on the research agenda, but this should be resisted, argues Fisch. “I am not convinced that the political process is the optimal [way] to generate valid research agendas. My big concern is always that while we are focusing on one big and admittedly highly relevant issue (such as climate change), we might overlook other problems with a potentially similar impact,” he said.

Fisch argues for the research agenda to include a wide range of approaches and be as apolitical as possible.

“In my view the most important task is to keep European science sufficiently broad and open to develop solutions in all directions – rather than putting all our eggs in one basket by defining political priorities. I am very sceptical that a French type of industrial policy approach [for example] will be the best way for European research to go – I do not believe in European champions on priority topics, I trust in the ingenuity of intelligent people, if you allow them to realise their ideas,” said Fisch.

Politicians should not be sucked into the “big hype on AI and robotics, which will tend to slow down as we understand that people are really the key element in the adoption of any fundamental breakthrough technology,” said Nunes.

He argues that the EU should keep enough money aside for fields at risk of being marginalised, like culture, humanities and the arts. Combining these fields with science and technology would stop scientists going further into narrow specialisations cut off from real-world concerns, Nunes said.

“I would like to see important investments pushing for this combination of science and technology with the arts and humanities,” Nunes said. “This will be fundamental to drive changes also in the higher education system that are very hard to implement and sustain since we are talking about one of the most conservative sectors of our society.”

Stay Open

Markus Dettenhofer, executive director of the Central European Institute of Technology, would like to see more work done on the ‘3 O’s strategy’ – open science, open innovation, and keeping Europe open to the world – pursued over the past five years by EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas, who will be stepping down later this year.  

“Much still is needed to flesh out the details of how this will be implemented,” Dettenhofer said.

The most decisive steps taken by outgoing EU leaders are in the field of open science. The EU is pushing a radical openaccess initiative, Plan S, which aims to knock down science paywalls in Europe. “The access to read [scientific papers] for all is critical,” Dettenhofer said.

Further action is needed to liberalise research data, “especially where it is relevant to matters most pertinent for society,” said Dettenhofer, arguing that data on air and water quality is not widely available across the EU.

Finally, the EU has to become a lot more open to the world, he argues, meaning it should seek research partnerships with a wider range of countries. “There has been some new outreach but we should go further,” said Dettenhofer.

Palmowski also sees room to expand this broad strategy. “We have not been as open to the world as we should have been, and it’s not clear to me how much we have progressed towards ‘open’ innovation,” he says.

“But there is no question that the Commission has made a huge push towards open science. It is a huge issue that is now being discussed in our universities – and that in itself is an important first step towards achieving more sustainable publication practices,” said Palmowksi.

In future instalments, experts will debate the new EU’s agenda for health, climate change, leading-edge technology like artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and efforts to uphold academic freedom in Europe

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