EUROPE: A bold attempt to streamline research

So the European Commission has finally adopted its proposals for the Horizon 2020 research programme running from 2014-20. But apart from giving a new name to the European Union's eighth research framework programme, what is new?

After intensive consultation, some patterns emerge: attempts to curb bureaucracy, several 'grand societal challenges' to be tackled, and further strengthening of research excellence and the European Institute of Technology.

Hard negotiations with member states and in the European Parliament are still to come, and the final programme will probably only be decided in 2013. But first the commission's communication document on Horizon 2020 will be discussed in the Competitiveness Council on 5-6 December.

Horizon 2020, the version now to be published, is the result of an extensive consultation, as reported by University World News.

One of the main organising principles in the proposed programme is concentration on 'grand societal challenges', first launched by the Swedish presidency in 2009 in the Lund Declaration.

These challenges respond directly to the policy priorities identified in the Europe 2020 strategy and aim to "stimulate the critical mass of research and innovation efforts needed to achieve union policy goals".

Funding will be focused on the following challenges: health, demographic change and well-being; food security, sustainable agriculture and the bio-economy; secure, clean and efficient energy; smart, green and integrated transport; climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; and inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

Horizon 2020 is divided into three parts: the 'grand societal challenges'; key enabling technologies and industrial leadership with the use of photonics and micro- and nanoelectronics, nanotechnologies, advanced materials, advanced manufacturing and processing, and biotechnology; and the third part labelled 'Securing the science base', which is also a continuation of the European Research Council (ERC) programme.

The latter was extensively endorsed by respondents in the open consultation on Horizon 2020 though a green paper earlier this year. "It will position the EU as a world leader in science, with a dedicated budget of EUR24.6 billion [US$33 billion], including an increase in funding of 77% for the very successful ERC," EU commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said.

One key 'instrument' for realising the 'grand societal challenges' is the set of joint programming initiatives (JPIs), which are projects jointly driven by member states and the commission based on common visions and strategic research agendas, and the alignment of research budgets between the member states and Horizon 2020, in order to greatly increase synergy.

A number of such JPIs are now being prepared for Horizon 2020 activities, notably in:

  • • Neurodegenerative disease research including Alzheimers, already in operation and coordinated by Institut Pasteur de Lille in France.
  • • Agriculture, food security and climate change, with 20 participating countries coordinated by France.
  • • A healthy diet for a healthy life, with 21 participating countries coordinated by The Netherlands.
  • • The microbial challenge - an emerging threat to human health, with 17 participating countries coordinated by Sweden.
  • • Connecting climate knowledge for Europe, with 12 participating countries coordinated by Germany.
  • • Cultural heritage and global change - a new challenge, with 18 participating countries coordinated by Italy.
  • • More years, better lives, with 13 countries participating coordinated by Germany.
  • • Urban Europe - global challenges, local solutions, with 12 participating countries coordinated by Austria.
  • • Water challenges for a changing world, with 14 participating countries coordinated by Spain.
  • • Healthy and productive seas and oceans, with 15 participating countries coordinated by Norway.

    What is new with these JPIs is that the member states are sitting in the driver's seat as coordinators developing the agendas and research strategies, and as co-financing units.

    The goal is to create synergy, build a critical mass and prevent duplication of research investments among the JPI participants. The alignment of member states' budgets for research is predicted to create a knock-on effect on the thematic research thus prioritised through the JPIs.

    The commission is using the French concept of 'variable geometry' for co-financing research, indicating also that some member states might want closer integration while other states would not wish to take integration forward through co-investments over their national research budgets.

    Social sciences and humanities researchers have lobbied intensely over the past months for establishing a dedicated SSH programme, either as a separate project in Horizon 2020 or as a separate JPI dealing primarily with social sciences and humanities. An open letter has been sent to commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn, signed by more than 21,900 people.

    However, although Geoghegan-Quinn has stated that social sciences and the humanities are very important in Horizon 2020, she said a separate programme not will be created, as reported by University World News recently.

    What is new in Horizon 2020 is the synergy created with the educational mobility programme Erasmus for all, notably through the mechanism of joint degrees and further work to 'modernise' European universities, in particular "to align and leverage research investments and make educational and training activities more responsible to business needs", the commission said in a statement.

    Horizon 2020 also contributes to mobility and collaboration through major strengthening of the European Institute of Technology (EIT), which provides new career paths between academia and the private sector and through Marie Curie for young researchers (innovative doctorates, industrial doctorates etc).

    In the proposal EUR5.75 billion is allocated to the Marie Curie scheme, which has supported the training, mobility and skills development of more than 50,000 young researchers since its launch in 1996.

    The proposal is to fund EIT with EUR2.8 billion covered by Horizon 2020, up from EUR309 million since its launch in 2008. This will lead to another EUR5.8 billion investment from private and public partners, allowing for a major expansion in six new knowledge and innovation communities (KICs) during the operation of Horizon 2020.

    The EIT is addressing societal challenges via 'innovation in the knowledge triangle', and JPIs tackling fragmentation in research should provide the nucleus of the pan-European KIC research base, according to the commission.

    "Notably through new, trans- and interdisciplinary EIT-labelled degrees, the EIT is leading a collaborative effort towards the modernisation of [European] higher education institutions," the commission announced.

    Androulla Vassiliou, commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, said: "The new package we are proposing for the European Institute of Technology is great news for European business, research and academia. We are investing in creating the entrepreneurs of tomorrow."

    According to the adopted EIT 'strategic innovation agenda', the commission expects that up to 600 start-up companies will be created and training will be provided for 25,000 students and 10,000 PhDs in the new curriculum combining excellent science with a strong entrepreneurship component.

    The commission has proposed a EUR80 billion budget over seven years for Horizon 2020. It has a tacit understanding with the European Parliament on the scale of funding, although there is still a group of MEPs pushing for a substantially higher level of funding - up to EUR100 billion.

    A long process of further negotiations with member states will be held before final agreement, partly due to austerity measures at member state level draining research budgets, partly due to resistance to transferring research activities to the European Union level among several member states.

    It will therefore probably be well into 2013 before the final decision on Horizon 2020 is made.

    * Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy director of the research department of the University of Bergen and has monitored the European Union research framework programmes since FP3, when Norway was allowed to participate on a pilot basis.