Non-European cooperation in Horizon 2020 in decline

Through the European Union research programmes there has been a growing ambition to include international partners from all over the world to participate in the formation of the European Research Area. One such ambition has been the opening up of the European Union ‘flagship programme’ Horizon 2020 to researchers and innovators across the world.

The top priorities have been to make the EU “a stronger global actor” and “open to the world”, in order to address the “grand challenges” of health, food, energy, water, climate change and the “circular economy” in a truly cross-national and international perspective, since these challenges are global and not only European.

Up to October 2016, 11 co-funding mechanisms have been negotiated with Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Hong Kong and Macau, India, Japan, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Russia and Taiwan.

Horizon 2020 was in particular addressing the ambition of increasing international collaboration in the consortia and getting financing through increasing the number of topics explicitly flagging “international collaboration”. In the work programme texts, this ambition increased during the 2014-17 work programmes from being included in 12% to 27% of the calls for proposals.

The recently published report Implementation of the Strategy for International Cooperation in Research and Innovation clearly demonstrates that the ambition has not at all been reached.

The report says that despite the increase in the number of topics flagged for international cooperation, the results from the first two years of Horizon 2020 show that the share of participation of entities from non-associated international partners – in other words, partners from non-European Union or European Economic Area countries – in grant agreements for collaborative actions has fallen from 4.9% in the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7, to just 2.4% under Horizon 2020.

“Only 11.7% of the Horizon 2020 grant agreements include one or more partner from outside the EU member states and the associated countries compared to 20.5% under FP7.

“The EU contribution to non-member states or associated states entities has fallen from 2.0% of the budget under FP7 to 0.7% under Horizon 2020. Likewise, the total budget invested by entities from international, non-associated partner countries in Horizon 2020 projects has fallen from €60 million [US$65 million] to €29 million per year.”

In the many feedbacks to the European Commission on the performance in the Horizon 2020 programme and the planning of the next framework programme FP9, the Austrian government has published a report by an Austrian FP9 think tank, addressing the need for increased international cooperation and proposing a wide set of actions on how the situation could be redressed.

More enduring approach

The Austrian FP9 think tank says: “So far, the European Commission followed a ‘dual approach strategy’ focusing on general opening of instruments and on targeted international activities. The mainstreaming of international cooperation in Horizon 2020 is considered as not being successful and having low awareness and impact to achieve a sustainable position for Europe as a global player.”

It said the main reason is the abrupt change in the funding regime for third countries and the dismissal of the INCO – a dedicated international collaborative programme in FP7 – support portfolio.

The think tank says that although the new approach of strategic programming and roadmaps including flagship initiatives for collaboration with specific third countries is promising and multilateral funding through member states is on the rise, it will be necessary to develop a more strategic, proactive and enduring approach.

This means organising international cooperation in the next framework programme, FP9 (2021-28), into one coherent overarching EU strategy with specific cooperation goals for top priority third countries. Europe should also take the lead in global initiatives supported by member states, the European Commission, partner countries, private partners and others worldwide.

The think tank says there needs to be stronger alignment of member states’ internationalisation strategies and initiatives to strengthen the cooperation between member states in co-funding arrangements.

It says there is a need to take advantage of the competitive strengths of European research infrastructures and promote international access, and promote Europe as an attractive region for researchers from all over the world.

Worrying decline

David Bohmert, secretary-general of the Conference of European Schools for Advanced Engineering Education and Research, told University World News: "With great concern we witness the decline of third-country participation in Horizon 2020. The EU should reinforce its efforts to seek matching funds with other international partners.”

He stressed that it must ensure that evaluators are well instructed not to subtract points in the evaluation when parties from third countries are involved and that full transparency in the evaluation summary reports is provided.

"The current crisis and challenges in Europe also threaten to jeopardise our longstanding intra-European cooperation in research and innovation. We all need to reinforce our joint efforts to safeguard the necessary boundary conditions for sustainable peace and prosperity in Europe – such as the respect for the rule of law and human rights, democratic citizenship, evidence-based policy making, free circulation of knowledge and its bearers, academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

He said a renewed focus on knowledge is paramount and more involvement of civil society at large in all EU programmes and funded projects is necessary, so that “the people better understand the added value of being part of our European community and culture”.

Science Europe stated in its position paper on FP9 that while Horizon 2020 is open to the world and co-operation with international partners is strongly encouraged, some features of the programme can be seen to hinder such co-operation.

“This is caused by a number of factors, which include the lack of automatic funding for all developed and some developing economies (for example, BRIC countries and Mexico), and legal constraints caused by certain provisions of the Horizon 2020 Grant Agreement.”

Professor Rafael Rodriguez Clemente, professor of research in the Spanish Council for Scientific Research, told University World News that the landscape for international cooperation in Horizon 2020 is very different from the previous one.

He said in the area where he is engaged, the EU-Mediterranean countries, the most significant fact is the launching of the ERANETMED, where the first call engaged more than €13 million from the participant countries, including Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and the European Mediterranean countries and Germany. This call financed 21 projects dealing with water, energy and its nexus.

The second call is being resolved at the moment and it has also engaged similar funding, so, at least from this geographic area, the EU-Med scientific and innovation cooperation is being (mostly) covered by this co-owned instrument, he said.

He said the PRIMA – Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area – initiative will act as regional framework programme mobilising some €400 million and focusing initially on two topics: food security and water. Now there is the Horizon 2020 project 4PRIMA supporting the setting up of the PRIMA structure.

“So, you can see that there is life outside Horizon 2020 for the international cooperation. I think that the Commission will follow the track of PRIMA to handle the cooperation with other regions of the world.”

Worrying data

Dr Lidia Borrell-Damian of the European University Association fears that this development (the decline of third country participation) will lead to less involvement from EU member states and associate countries in Horizon 2020.

She told University World News: "This is indeed a worrying set of data, despite the mismatch of time frames by comparing the whole of FP7 with the first years of Horizon 2020, and setting aside that the budget for the last years in Horizon 2020 is bound to increase. To achieve the 'open to the world' priority, corrective measures and their implementation need to build at least partly on the vast experience of universities in internationalisation.

She said to sustain Europe’s global competitiveness, it is necessary to invest further in universities, expanding their international cooperation efforts in their research, education and innovation activities.

“We are in a new global era given shifting demographics and high growth of universities and students elsewhere in the world, hence the need for more international cooperation. University partnerships also increasingly have a multidisciplinary characteristic, which is essential to tackle the 21st century challenges such as energy, climate change, disease prevention and the enhancement of healthy lifestyles."

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo and the chairman of the board of the Guild of European Research Intensive Universities, a network of universities which have joined forces to influence the European Commission, told University World News: “We fully support the Commission's concern that Europe is 'open to the world' through collaboration with the best scientists worldwide; it is now critical that the EU learns from its experience and improves the ways in which non-European researchers can engage with their European counterparts within Horizon 2020.”

Dan Andrée, head of the Brussels office of Vinnova, the Swedish innovation agency, and a member of the EU Strategic Forum for International Science and Technology Cooperation, told University World News: “I think the framework programme has succeeded in European collaboration but now we have to focus more on cooperation outside Europe to tackle global challenges. The corrective measures proposed by the Commission will hopefully give effect in the Horizon calls this and next year but it is far too early to see it now.

“In FP9 we would need more radical approaches such as giving incentives to include partners outside Europe, together with continued simplification to include third-country participants.”