Viewpoint: The five challenges to a truly global Horizon programme

04 Jan 2024 | Viewpoint

With new countries joining Horizon Europe, the EU research programme could catalyse great science and technology across the globe. But first, Brussels will have to face up to some big challenges

Richard L. Hudson, co-founder, editorial director and vice chair of Science|Business

After a generally awful year of conflict and war in 2023, I’d like to draw your attention to a small ray of hope for a peaceful New Year: the emergence of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme as an extraordinary engine of global scientific cooperation.

Consider: late last year, Canada agreed to join the €95.5 billion programme as an ‘associate’ member, following New Zealand’s entry. The UK, after a few years of limbo due to Brexit, has rejoined, and the Swiss, exiled by their own trade difficulties with Brussels, will be back in the game this year. Discussions on membership are ongoing with Korea and Japan.

The programme, which this year marks its 40th anniversary, is now a global benchmark for the support of open, cross-border scientific collaboration. Besides the 27 EU member states, 20 other countries have joined or are about to join the programme; that means more than three million researchers around the globe can apply for Horizon funding – about a third of the world’s full-time researcher workforce, by UNESCO’s count. In addition, many more in 117 developing countries are eligible in specific circumstances. And others – in the US, for instance – can join Horizon research partnerships if they find their own funding elsewhere.

If that sounds impressive, it is – but there’s also some fine print. Being eligible for Horizon doesn’t mean you automatically get the EU money; that depends on each country’s specific deal with Brussels, how tough each round of grant competitions proves to be, and of course how good the grant-seekers actually are. But even so, in the past two years Horizon Europe has distributed more than €1.9 billion to Horizon-associated countries outside the EU, or 6.7% of its total grants – and that doesn’t include the millions spent on EU-based research labs owned by non-EU companies like IBM and Samsung. The new deals with Canada and others will swell the total further.

A defensive crouch

What’s more, Horizon’s international expansion comes in defiance of the usual laws of political gravity. Other countries, notably the US, also fund international science – but their programmes usually come with a series of (growing) restrictions that reflect local politics. Horizon’s predecessor, Framework Programme 1, began that way, too, in a kind of continental defensive crouch. The original intent in 1984 was to strengthen ties among EU member states, and bolster their own industrial competitiveness, in the face of American and Japanese technology dominance. That kind of EU-first thinking continues (and deepens) today; but at the same time the programme has become an unexpectedly powerful tool for science diplomacy.

How or why is a mystery, given the normal tendency of politicians to care only about their own constituents. Certainly, Horizon’s evolution has much to do with the unique structure of the EU institutions and the often idealistic people who run them, one step removed from the electoral pressures of their home state politics. It also reflects a broad interpretation of EU self-interest: given the many global problems that we face today – of climate change, pandemics, war, income inequality, and scary new technologies of uncertain impact – global solutions appear attractive. An oft-cited example: we simply would not have had COVID-19 vaccines so quickly, and millions more would now be dead, if there hadn’t been a lot of global scientific cooperation.

So, huzzah for Horizon. But enough happy talk. There be shoals and storms ahead – and they take on heightened importance as the Commission bureaucrats begin the regular, seven-year planning cycle for research. In my view, these are the top five challenges they will face, if they want to keep up the momentum.

  1. Governance: the formal association of new member states to Horizon is going to pose big problems of governance. At present, the basic membership deal is that rich countries pay varying amounts into the EU money pot so their researchers can apply on equal terms for Horizon funding with colleagues in EU member states. (The deal is different for developing countries, which get subsidised admittance.) But, crucially, most of these non-EU countries don’t get a formal vote on the programme priorities. What topics will be funded, and when? How will grantees be chosen? How will the projects, and the overall budget, be managed? Commission officials dismiss such questions as off-point; after all, they say, the associated countries get a seat at the planning meetings even if they can’t cast a vote on the final decisions. But I don’t think that argument will stand up for long. Why should Japan commit big sums to an EU programme it doesn’t really control, when its own national programmes are struggling for cash? At the same time, the European Parliament has complained it should have a say over these association deals, which are starting to sound like treaties meriting public scrutiny. In short, if the EU wants Horizon to keep growing, it will have to invent a new governance model that gives everybody a fair say in how the money goes around. 
  2. Bureaucracy: for all Horizon’s fans, few people outside the Commission would argue the programme is a model of administrative efficiency. Assembling the research consortia, writing the applications, administering the grants, reporting the results – all are tasks more onerous than in many national research programmes. And the odds of winning a grant are on average 15.9% - about one chance in six, meaning universities and companies waste millions preparing failed applications. Of course, the Commission has been working for years to simplify the process. And reason alone suggests any global funding programme is bound to have higher overheads than a national or regional funder. Still, the Commission will have to rethink the way it handles applications and contracting, at the least with non-EU states.
  3. Protectionism: a paradox of Horizon is that, at the same time its global outreach has grown, its protectionist hackles have risen. Under the slogan “open strategic autonomy,” the Commission has been raising barriers to technology cooperation with countries it views as competitors. In various EU programmes, the Commission has at times barred Israel, the UK, and a few other countries from some projects on quantum, space and cyber. Its new semiconductor and green hydrogen initiatives are internally focused. Of course, US R&D subsidies in critical areas like clean energy and chips are also ring-fenced for those operating inside America; indeed, Washington started the current protectionist trend in world trade, under the America First Trump administration. But the EU will have to choose: does it want to run a global science fund for the good of Europe and the world, or a domestic industry subsidy for the sake of its own citizens’ prosperity and safety? It could do both – but not in the same programme, with the same rules and administrators at constant odds over objectives and means. 
  4. Security: as trade wars and shooting wars have multiplied, so too have the West’s worries about technology secrets getting into the wrong hands – whether it be China, Russia, Iran or others. As a result, controls on foreign research collaboration are rising fast. In coordination among the Group of 7 largest western economies, US science funders have been stepping up security measures. Security services from Canada to France to the UK review some foreign researcher exchanges and, in Canada’s case, grant applications, too. So far, the Commission’s response has been relatively measured, preparing a security ‘tool kit’ for research administrators, halting all support to Russian research partners because of the Ukraine war, and developing a list of critical technologies for which it can limit collaboration with other countries – especially China.  We can hope the world calms down and science can resume without passports. But, facing reality, the Commission’s Horizon planning will have to work out a more explicit - and practical - way of managing security while inviting collaboration with allies.
  5. Factionalism: the political genius behind Framework Programme 1 in 1984 was to build a coalition of companies, universities and key ministries in support of central EU funding – which, before that had been severely limited by intra-European rivalries. The solution was an omnibus R&D programme, with something for everyone. But that political coalition is breaking apart today. As lobbyist numbers grow in Brussels, the planning of Horizon is turning into a battle between fundamental science and applied research, between green and digital technologies, between academia and industry, small companies and multinationals, eastern and western Europe, liberal and illiberal governments. As a result, Horizon has started to fragment, with bits of its budget chipped off from one year to the next into other, more-urgent needs. If the EU research community doesn’t want this trend to worsen, it must put aside its squabbling and present a united face to politicians.

These five challenges will make the next few years of Horizon planning the most consequential since the start in 1984 – a landmark event that I reported on, as a then-young tech reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Europe. I’m a lot greyer now, but still deeply invested in the success of Europe’s R&D programmes. We at Science|Business will be celebrating the programme’s 40th anniversary (and our own company’s 20th) at our annual Network conference in Brussels on 12 and 13 February. And throughout the next few years of Horizon planning, we will keep our readers well informed of how these policy conflicts are being handled. We invite you to join us, on our news pages and in our conferences.

Richard L. Hudson is co-founder, editorial director and vice chair of Science|Business.

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