Evaluating the EU’s Horizon 2020 and designing FP9

As input to the work programme of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 for the period 2018-20 and the next framework programme – FP9 – Norwegian and Danish authorities have published their recommendations.

The European Commission website describes Horizon 2020 as “the biggest European Union research and innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion [US$90 billion] of funding available over seven years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract”. It promises “more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market”.

Horizon 2020, the current framework programme, will expire on 31 December 2020. A new Framework Programme, FP9, is due to start on 1 January 2021.

The Danish position paper was finalised in late June by Universities Denmark – Danske Universiteter – and the Norwegian recommendations were produced by a working group established by the Research Council of Norway.

Both papers address the changes from the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7, to the current Horizon 2020 programme, with the increased weighting on projects of so-called higher Technology Readiness Levels, which has resulted in a greater focus on tangible innovation outcomes in Horizon 2020 projects than in previous framework programmes.

Too focused on high Technology Readiness Levels

The Danish paper states: “Horizon 2020 has become too focused on activities close to the market with a significant risk that Europe is missing out on game-changing innovations with the possibility of creating new value chains and solving societal challenges. More funding should be allocated to collaborative research projects at lower Technology Readiness Levels”.

The Norwegian paper argues for the right balance between projects at intermediate and high Technology Readiness Levels or TRLs: “We support the focus on impact in Horizon 2020, but would like to urge for better explanations to applicants.

“We are also a bit concerned that the focus on impact could lead to a too strong focus on demonstration and innovation activities at high Technology Readiness Levels (7-8), based on existing, mature technologies,” the position paper states.

In addition, it states: “Projects at intermediate TRL levels (applied research) act as a bridge between basic research and innovation, and are necessary to have more and better projects at the higher TRL levels. Product and process innovation at intermediate TRL levels normally take a longer time. We believe attention should be paid to a balanced financial support for all TRL levels.”

‘Against the political tide’

Head of European Research and Innovation at University College London, Michael Browne – who has so far overseen the award of more than 220 Horizon 2020 projects (of which University College London is coordinating 40) – said to University World News that arguing against higher Technology Readiness Levels in the coming framework programme beyond 2020 is going “against the political tide”.

“Experience has shown us that previous framework programmes have failed to deliver tangible impacts using the old model of early-stage collaborative funding,” he said.

“I would however strongly support continued and extended funding for research excellence in the next framework programme through the European Research Council/Marie Sklodowska-Curie parts of the programme. But I think it's unlikely – given previous experiences – to revert to the lower technology level model for collaborative projects in the next framework programme,” said Browne.

’Picking low hanging fruit’

Peter Fisch, European Commission officer from 1994 to 2013 and head of the Unit for Evaluation and Monitoring of the Framework Programme (2006-2013), told University World News: “The two papers from Universities Denmark and the Norwegian government are quite different in terms of analysis and purpose, but they both show a high degree of scepticism regarding the growing relevance of advanced TRLs for the availability of Horizon 2020 funding.”

“In my view, the focus on higher TRLs is a classic case of picking ‘low hanging fruit’ in the sense that there was a hope among policy-makers that financing more of such projects would quickly generate an additional stimulus for growth and employment in Europe,” he said.

“I am not sure this has really worked in Horizon 2020 so far, but I am convinced that picking low hanging fruit is not a sustainable harvesting strategy, and that Europe needs a steady support for research activities at all stages in order to ensure long-term innovation.”

Fisch added: “Contrary to the Norwegian government, I don't think that identifying priorities in kind of ‘shopping lists’ is a meaningful approach either. If we aim at disruptive innovation, we have to accept that it does not follow the mainstream logic of political decision-making processes.

“I personally compare the situation to investment decisions in the stock market,” he said. “While there are always nice and seemingly convincing stories why one should pick certain stocks as obvious winners, the only reliable strategy in the long term is to invest broadly across a wide range of assets (as, remarkably, the Norwegian Pension Fund actually does).

“Against this background, I strongly advocate for abandoning any kind of thematic focus and strategic priority setting – as there is a high probability that ground-breaking innovations will come from areas where the mainstream logic would not expect them,” Fisch told University World News.

Horizon 2020 concerns

Both the Danish and the Norwegian policy briefs address the low chances for success in securing Horizon 2020 funding due to an oversubscription to the calls for funding proposals, and both address the urgent need for better interplay between national levels and the EU level in research.

Norwegian priorities for Horizon 2020 2018-20

The Norwegian paper says: “At least 60% of the overall Horizon 2020 expenditure shall be related to sustainable development. Climate-related expenditure should exceed 35% of the budget. These funding targets have not yet been reached. Efforts should therefore be made in the work programme 2018-20 to ensure that these targets are actually met by the end of Horizon 2020.”

The focus area regarding the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Norwegian paper states, should be research that can “support the development of a digital single market”, with possible research for:
  • • Enabling and converging technologies;
  • • The human and social context of the technology;
  • • Adaptation of jobs and working practices;
  • • Inequality and access;
  • • Collaborative economy and societies;
  • • Creativity and (digital) cultural heritage;
  • • Lifestyle and social media;
  • • Big data for societal challenges;
  • • Cyber-physical systems;
  • • Digital security, including security by design;
  • • The internet of things and the internet of services; and
  • • The impact of robotics and the transition to the fully automated transport society.
Norway is calling for a focus of attention on the ‘green shift’ in the economy and society, notably towards “green innovation and competitiveness”, and also on blue growth – the long term strategy to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors – and the digital economy.

“The aim should be a green, competitive and inclusive Europe,” Norway’s submission states.