Will Horizon Europe be more open to the world?

The European Commission’s draft proposal for the European Union’s research programme for 2021-28, Horizon Europe, has been heralded by some stakeholders for adding a rule change on third-party participation that could pave the way for more countries from across the world to join the programme.

The European Commission’s proposal says the framework programme will intensify cooperation and extend association agreements to include countries with excellent science, technology and innovation capacities.

Furthermore, it specifies: “The programme should promote and integrate cooperation with third countries and international organisations and initiatives based on common interest, mutual benefit and global commitments to implement the UN SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].”

The rule change is needed to address the falling rate of involvement of participants from non-EU countries. The share of international programme participants from outside Europe fell to 2.5% under the current programme, Horizon 2020, down from 4.3% in its predecessor, the Seventh Framework Programme, as Science Business has reported, despite the EU openly acknowledging that widening participation is vital to its ambition to be a global innovator.

But the jury is out among stakeholders on whether the rule change will make enough of a difference. Allowing more countries to participate and persuading them to do so are not the same thing.

And although the programme will continue to fund entities from low- to middle-income countries, and to fund entities from industrialised and emerging economies, it will do so “only if they possess essential competence or facilities”.

Setting aside the fact that some developing countries would be exempted from paying under certain conditions, there are financial and intellectual reasons why the proposal might not be expected to create a rush of interest, except perhaps from post-Brexit UK.

No ‘special offer’

According to Peter Fisch, European Commission officer from 1994 to 2013 and head of the Unit for Evaluation and Monitoring of the Framework Programme (2006-13): “In financial terms, participation will be a kind of zero sum game, as third countries will have to pay just for their respective participations. In strictly financial terms there will be thus no gains and no losses.

“In my view, this is a reasonable offer, but I would not expect a rush towards Horizon Europe, as the conditions have nothing of a ‘special offer’ or a ‘hot deal’ – these are just the arrangements for a fair and equitable cooperation,” he told University World News.

The proposal states that international cooperation should aim to strengthen the EU's research and innovation excellence, attractiveness and economic and industrial competitiveness, to tackle global challenges, as embodied in the UN SDGs, and to support the EU's external policies.

But it also sets three criteria third countries must fulfil if they are to participate:
  • • A good capacity in science, technology and innovation;

  • • Commitment to a rules-based open market economy, including fair and equitable dealing with intellectual property rights, backed by democratic institutions;

  • • Active promotion of policies to improve the economic and social well-being of citizens.
While third countries should in principle bear the cost, some exceptions are specified for low- to middle-income countries and exceptionally for other non-associated third countries, namely if the third country is identified in the work programme adopted by the European Commission or if the commission or funding body consider that its participation is essential for implementing the action.

The down-scaling of international participation during Horizon 2020 has occurred in spite of a plethora of previous measures taken by the commission to increase third-country participation.

In 2012, for example, the commission mandated a group of international experts chaired by Professor Sylvia Schwaag Serger – then executive director of international networking at Vinnova – to work out recommendations for strengthening international cooperation with third countries in Horizon 2020, which ends in 2020.

Furthermore, the European Council mandated the Strategic Forum for International Science and Technology Cooperation (SFIC), with two members from each member state meeting four times a year, during the operation of Horizon, to monitor and make recommendations on how to strengthen international collaboration to realise the European Research Area.

A step in the right direction

Dan Andrée, head of the Brussels office of Vinnova, Sweden's government agency for innovation, who chaired SFIC from 2013-16, said while Sweden has not yet agreed a position on the proposal, it had called for steps to make it easier for countries outside European research collaboration to participate. His personal view is that the proposal looks like a step in that direction.

“This is important in order to tackle global challenges using the Sustainable Development Goals criteria,” he told University World News.

“Obviously there has to be some kind of ‘fairness’ and harmonised rules for association and, depending on the level of association, what kind of influence they could have in programme committees.

“But this will not be enough! We need to further simplify and incentivise European participants to take in countries from outside Europe in planned consortia – today it is often considered as an extra risk which is not rewarded. This has to be followed up in the higher education work programmes.”

Professor Schwaag Serger, now deputy vice-chancellor at Lund University, said the step was important in addressing the changing global knowledge landscape in which developing countries and transition economies are increasingly important producers of knowledge, in terms of their share of total scientific publications, and are becoming global innovation drivers.

Attracting global talent

“In this landscape, it is important for Europe to be attractive to global talent and for international cooperation in science, technology and innovation, and it is not something we can take for granted,” she told University World News. “This is important for research excellence, for driving innovation and for tackling the increasingly pressing global challenges we face (such as climate change).”

Mateja Kramberger, EU project manager at TIKO PRO, Slovenia, a company that helps firms and organisations obtain EU and other funding – and claims a 90% success rate for Slovenian and Croatian national calls and a 40% rate at EU level – said if the EU is to achieve its goal of being a global innovation leader, it is important that European companies network and cooperate with ‘third’ countries.

“We believe that from the re-arrangement of foreign access the innovation potential of European businesses will be boosted through the broader exchange of knowledge and experience. A very important factor, in our opinion, is also the empowerment and encouragement of European businesses to participate in industry-academia cooperation within and outside the EU.”

Bridging the East-West divide

It is also important to bridge the East-West divide in the EU and support actions that “enable researchers and innovators coming from less developed areas to show their full innovation potential”, Kramberger said.

In addition to the low success rate of bids and therefore high risk, there are other obstacles to enticing more participants from beyond Europe.

Peter Fisch told University World News that regarding the intellectual dimension, Horizon Europe is meant to provide stronger support than previous framework programmes for the political agenda of the European Union. While part of this agenda has a global relevance – climate research to quote the most obvious example – others have a much more specific focus on the competitiveness of European industry.

“I have difficulties to imagine that such themes will develop a particular appeal to countries like Mexico or South Africa, but it is only at a much later stage that one can assess the intellectual openness in these research themes,” Fisch said.

But for European Economic Area countries, the proposal is good news because it makes no changes to their arrangement, in which they pay a rate determined by their GDP, according to Massimo Busuoli, head of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Brussels Office.

He said the agreement will allow Norway to continue on its trend towards bringing in more funding in projects than its contribution. Last year it landed 2% of the total Horizon 2020 funding in projects.