Commissioner urges huge expansion of EU research

European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Jyrki Katainen favours a significant expansion of the European Union’s research budget for 2021-28, he told the Science Business Network conference, “New World Order: Science, technology and trade”, in Brussels on 27 June, suggesting that a 50% increase to €120 billion (US$137 billion) would be a “good target”.

Katainen said that in the talks starting from 28 June on the new long-term EU budget, he would address in particular two central issues to be strengthened: security, and research and innovation.

“We also need to open up our borders not only for goods and services, but also for ideas,” Katainen said.

He is thereby joining the long list of associations and other voices now calling for the strengthening of the EU research and innovation programme in their comments to the European Commission for the planning of the Ninth Framework Programme or FP9, for 2021-27.

The interim report for 2013-16 of the current half-completed Horizon 2020 programme has demonstrated that there is massive overbidding for proposals, notably from universities, and the success rate has declined significantly, as reported by University World News.

Several players are now arguing that the best way to expand the EU framework research programme is to couple it more effectively with the European Structural and Investment Funds or ESIF. While the framework programmes are exclusively funded based on excellence, the structural and regional programmes are designed also to build capacities.

Notably, the European University Association is calling for a €200 billion (US$228 billion) budget.

This would eventually mean an expansion to €25 billion per year, compared to €11 billion per year for Horizon 2020 in 2014-20.

New optimism in Europe?

In contrast to the United Kingdom’s Brexit decision and Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, which is isolating these two major actors in world politics for the first time since World War II, Continental Europe is now positioning itself as an open society for globalisation, trade and international collaboration.

University World News asked university representatives what impact this might have on European universities in the decade ahead.

Robert-Jan Smits, director general for research and innovation at the European Commission, said he is now more optimistic that there can be a coupling of the EU research programme and the structural funds.

“I have been with the Commission for a long time,” Smits said. “Earlier, the member states only wanted to dispose of the structural funds for buildings and infrastructure, even building an opera was prioritised. But in recent years we have seen more open-mindedness for including higher education and research.”

Professor Fulvio Esposito, of the University of Camerino in Italy and chair of the High Level Group on Joint Programming of European Research, told University World News: “The 'synergy' between the Framework Programme funds and the ESIF [European Structural and Investment Funds] is a big issue.

“During Horizon 2020, for those who tried to put this in practice it was a real nightmare due to the discrepancy – or frank contradiction – of the respective rules of the two instruments.”

He said in these past months, when discussions on the interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 and on preparation for the next framework programme started, virtually all member states insisted that this had to be changed for the next budgetary cycle, 2021-27, but he thinks that change “cannot be taken for granted”.

The use of ESIF (in particular the European Social Fund) for doctoral training has been practised by several regions in Italy, in particular to support joint doctoral projects between academia and the rest of society (especially smaller and medium sized companies), he said.

“The results have been quite diverse, because the alchemic process is complex: you have to find a good enterprise, a good project, a good academic supervisor and a good doctoral candidate. Obviously, this is not always the case, and when just one ring of the chain fails, the whole process is condemned to failure.”

Professor Jerzy Langer, chair of the Future and Emerging Technologies Advisory Group to the European Commission, and former deputy minister of science in Poland, told University World News that he was pleased that senior European Commission officials had been consistent over the past few years in shifting budgetary policies from “equalising” spending towards “wise investment” in European human capital via the framework programmes and other pro-innovation activities.

This included almost €300 billion spent by the European Regional Development Fund, requiring at least 50% spending of the structural funds towards an innovative economy.

He said: “Today out of every euro spent on R&D in the EU from budgetary resources, at least one-fifth comes from Brussels – mostly via the European Regional Development Fund, which is twice as large as Horizon 2020.”

But, he said, the funds are too widely dispersed.

Pressure from Asia, but also from the Americas is truly growing and unfortunately is still sucking off a lot of European talent, lured by better and more profitable and friendly working conditions, he believes.

He said Brexit will not weaken the future framework programme much.

“Look at Norway, Switzerland, Israel, the associated countries – they are doing much better than average in getting more from Horizon 2020 than they put in.

“Of course, the structural funds will be [off the menu], but it is not a big problem for them.”

The League of European Research Universities or LERU, presenting their own recommendations last week, also urged an expansion of research funding by tapping regional and structural European funds.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of LERU, said: “It is important for Europe that excellent researchers, wherever they are, can and are motivated to participate in the framework programme.

“This should not be realised by changing the rules of the game and moving towards geographical criteria for awarding framework programme funding, but by developing synergies between FP9 [the Ninth Framework Programme] and the structural funding the EU offers to less developed member states.”

LERU proposes in its paper that a certain percentage of structural funds should be earmarked for synergies with FP9 and be exempt from state aid rules. The paper also makes concrete suggestions for these synergies, such as the ‘seal of excellence’ and a return phase for Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowships.

Different approach

For collaborative research and innovation activities, LERU proposes an approach that is quite different to the current funding offered in Pillar II (Industrial Leadership) and Pillar III (Societal Challenges) of Horizon 2020.

It features one programme for all collaborative activities that increases opportunities for frontier collaborative research compared to Horizon 2020. At the same time, and on the same topics, the programme should fund advanced research, support clustering of projects working on similar topics and foresee follow-up funding for those projects that need a little extra to achieve a bigger impact, LERU says.

LERU also proposes a very different process of topic identification and work programmes development, with topics resulting from a bottom-up consultation as well as topics decided purely top-down.

Funding international co-operation

Another target the European Commission is pursuing is to drive up international collaboration. Participation in Horizon 2020 from beyond the EU is disappointing, and whereas almost 5% of grant winners in the former Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7, were from countries outside the EU, this has now fallen to only 2.2%.

This is partially explained by a change in the rules which means Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico must provide matched funding. But countries such as the US, Canada and Japan, operating under the same rules as before, are considerably less involved in Horizon 2020 than they were in FP7.

“International collaboration is not growing as we had hoped. So we will have to roll out a few flagships [in the Ninth Framework Programme],” Smits said.

Not everyone agrees that European Union research funding is approaching a golden age of expansion.

Dan Andrée, Brussels representative of Vinnova, the Swedish governmental agency for funding research and development, told University World News: “Sweden cannot accept an increase in its net contribution to the EU. However, we are prepared to discuss an increase in the budget of the research and innovation framework programme if we have a corresponding decrease in other areas such as agriculture and structural funds.

“Realistically, it will unfortunately be difficult to achieve because it requires wide agreement among member states. The present budget of €80 billion will be reduced by around 13% due to Brexit. Even if I’m an optimist, I would be surprised if the budget for FP9 is higher than €80 billion,” he said.