Towards a global hub of collaborative research

The European Commission has long wished to make European research ‘open to the world’. It is one of Commissioner Carlos Moedas’ three ‘O’s, which, together with ‘open innovation’ and ‘open science’, have been the basis of his agenda.

In the present European Union research programme, Horizon 2020, possibilities for global research are limited and participation of third countries is very low, unless they have an association agreement allowing them to participate more or less as if they were an EU country.

Association agreements, however, are limited to the EU’s geographical neighbours with the consequence that new agreements have mostly been used for diplomatic purposes in countries like the Ukraine or Tunisia, rather than to strengthen scientific ties with knowledge-intensive economies.

The European Commission’s former director general for research and innovation Robert-Jan Smits openly wished for agreements with the likes of South Korea or Canada, but this was legally and politically impossible.

Brexit has made this wish a necessity: as both sides of the negotiation openly embrace the idea that the United Kingdom should be able to participate in EU research cooperation after it leaves the union, the rules need to change to better accommodate the association of third countries.

Two important political agendas therefore conveniently converge: opening the research programme beyond the EU’s neighbours and preparing a legal basis for negotiations with the UK, which will result in proposals for a new, common basis of association to EU funding programmes more broadly.

Making association status attractive

Leaving the UK aside, can this work in practice for Horizon Europe, the new research programme, making association an attractive option for research-intensive countries?

The legal framework, as proposed by the commission, is fairly simple: associated countries that are neither part of the European Economic Area, nor an accession country, a candidate or a potential candidate, nor part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, are in a special category (’Article 12(d) countries’).

They need to fulfil a short list of criteria, such as having good capacity in research and being committed to an open, market-based economy, democratic institutions and fair dealing with intellectual property rights. If these criteria are met, countries can negotiate association to the whole or parts of the programme. They must contribute in a balanced way and can have no decisional power over the programme.

This is the commission proposal; it remains to be seen how the European Parliament and Council might amend it.

Political considerations

The question, based on this proposal, is: will the combination of contributing financially while having limited influence work politically?

When looking at those countries that fulfil the requirement of being research-intensive, that is, those that spend at least 1.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and innovation, the problem becomes evident. The list, even with this rather lenient definition, is short: 12 countries, including those in the European Economic Area: Australia, Canada, China, United Kingdom, Iceland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.

China would not meet the criteria for democratic institutions and market economy; Singapore would also have difficulties here. Ten countries remain, of which three (Iceland, Israel and Norway) would anyway be associated under categories other than 12(d).

Contributing ‘in a balanced way’ could mean that the size of the GDP of the country relative to that of the EU as a whole determines how much the associated country has to pay. It would be more complicated in practice, but let us assume for the sake of the argument that this would be the formula, as it is also the basis of what is used today.

We can thus estimate how much associated countries would pay into the programme.

The US would pay more than the whole of the EU, which, needless to say, would not be acceptable for anyone, as the programme would be completely off-balance. Even if the US forewent any decision-making powers (which they would never accept), the power implicit in paying for more than half of the programme would be palatable to no one.

Japan would be in a similar situation, contributing more than any individual EU country. The UK would also make a substantial contribution, but its context is very different and it will be looked at below. Canada, Korea and Australia would still pay more than any country currently associated to Horizon 2020. It is highly questionable whether any associated country would accept to be a major contributor to the programme without having any formal say on how the money is spent.

However, the legal framework in Article 12 clearly states that association may also cover only parts of the programme. Indeed, there are parts to which the EU itself would be unlikely to wish to give access to third countries (again, the UK is a special case).

For example, access to the ‘open innovation’ pillar of Horizon Europe, which aims to boost EU competitiveness, could be limited: why should the European Union support South Korean start-ups, for example? Also, the European Research Council, which supports individual highly talented researchers, could be off-limits. The EU would be reluctant to facilitate brain drain away from Europe.

Global collaboration

Association of third countries might focus on the collaborative parts of Horizon Europe: the second pillar with its big collaborative research projects and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions supporting research exchanges and training. Here, global collaboration makes good sense for all. Assuming that the proportion of these parts will be as the commission has proposed, the cost of participation seems more reasonable.

The contribution of the US and Japan would still be very large, but the contribution of the other countries would approach about 5%, which is what Turkey pays for full association today as a candidate country. Turkey does not have decision-making powers, but is part of much of the governance of the programme through expert groups and as an observer, which gives it a fair amount of influence; the same would be the case for Canada or South Korea.

Turkey, of course, has full access to the programme, but less capacity to use it than more knowledge-intensive economies. It might be that the equilibrium between contribution and influence could be made interesting enough to warrant an association agreement.

So, can Horizon Europe be open to the world? Yes, it can. Though the list of associated countries that are legally eligible and practically realistic is rather short, and the modalities will most likely not look like the wholesale solutions we have seen in the past, the framework as presented by the commission would provide enough flexibility to find different models of association and to make Europe a truly global hub of collaborative research, particularly as the EU can present a unique multilateral model for large, international consortia.

Brexit postscript

What does all this mean for Brexit? The British government has openly said that it would seek full association to Horizon Europe, which would make sense for both parties given the integration and weight of the UK in the European Research Area. The UK has also given positive signals regarding the size of its contribution. At the same time, it has made clear that it would want influence over decision-making that corresponds to its financial contribution.

There is no certainty that the final legal framework will be as open as the commission proposal, but a – perhaps optimistic – assumption is that it will provide a basis to begin negotiations about association after Brexit. Should the UK become the first country to negotiate an association agreement under the new rules, this would be an interesting test case of if and how the balancing act between contribution and influence can be reached in a more global research programme.

Thomas Ekman Jørgensen is senior policy coordinator at the European University Association. This article was first published on LinkedIn.