Horizon Europe Missions – Top universities call for rethink

Too few scientists and researchers are inspired enough to even make a bid for a share of the grants available from the European Union’s flagship Horizon Europe ‘EU Missions’ – and many researchers have probably never heard of the multi-billion-euro projects which are supposed to pool resources from within EU member states to help transform Europe into a greener, healthier, more inclusive and resilient continent.

So warn two leading networks of European research universities as the EU Missions – launched as a key feature of the €95.9 billion (US$104 billion) Horizon Europe research and innovation programme for 2021-27 – prepare for their first assessment as part of the mid-way review of the Horizon Europe grand project.

The five missions were designed to accord with European Commission (EC) priorities, which include preparing for climate change by supporting at least 150 European regions and communities to become climate resilient (adaptation to climate change; restore our ocean and waters; climate-neutral and smart cities; and a soil deal for Europe), as well as helping to improve the lives of three million people through prevention, cure and solutions in a ‘beating cancer plan’.

The missions were inherited from the previous European Commission with the aim of bringing research and innovation (R&I) closer to tackling key challenges facing Europe, together with regional and national authorities across the continent, and the mobilisation of citizen action.

Narrow scope

However, their narrow scope and concentration on speedy, concrete, high-end results mean that only very few consortia of scientists can even consider addressing the EC’s expectations, said Laura Keustermans, senior policy officer for research and education with the League of European Research Universities (LERU).

She told University World News the Horizon Europe Missions have so far focused on the highest Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) scales, which the EC uses to indicate how close project outcomes are from commercialisation or direct use by society.

This means mission objectives are so prescribed and ambitious that it not surprising there have been so few responses to the mission calls.

Keustermans said that LERU wants the EC to widen the scope and offer more funding opportunities for R&I activities and “strengthen the breakthrough character of missions by funding more disruptive research focused at lower and medium TRLs”.

She also said the EC should ensure that mission goals are better known by the wider public and by researchers and suggested it could help if the commission didn’t have the missions in separate work programmes but integrated them into the ‘normal’ work programmes instead.

Low application rates

Keustermans’ comments echoed a statement released by the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, which proposed that the missions should be more clearly aligned with other initiatives, such as the partnerships funded by Horizon Europe.

The Guild’s statement highlighted the “very low application rates in many calls across all the R&I missions” with several call topics only receiving a couple of applications, resulting in unusually high success rates.

“The experiences from the first rounds of calls should lead to careful analysis of the reasons why these calls failed to attract a better response, and to a re-orientation of their scope in future calls,” said Professor Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild.

He told University World News: “The Guild fears the momentum behind the EU Missions is being lost because of a “lack of buy-in from a range of key actors in government, civil society and the research community, including universities”, and recommended “restoring a strong research focus” in the assessment of the mission approach planned for 2023.

An EU official admitted to University World News that the “portfolio of targeted calls” linked to the successful implementation of the EU Missions “may speak to thinner audiences of researchers and innovators”, but claimed: “Missions are mobilising a wide range of stakeholders within and beyond Horizon Europe.”

The official pointed to the interest of cities in becoming part of the pilot group of ‘climate neutral cities’ and suggested that “response to a few very specific calls is not a good measure of the attractiveness of missions as an instrument”.

The EU official went on to say: “While the number of applications for mission calls is overall lower than in other calls, this can be explained by the novel types of actions at stake and the specific features of certain calls.”

For example, the ‘oceans mission’ has defined the challenges of pollution to parts of its strategy, and at this initial stage is addressing a specific ocean basin like the Mediterranean.

“The missions are an evolving policy instrument, which by definition brings about experimentation and change. The upcoming exercise of review and assessment of the five missions and mission areas is expected to identify areas for optimisation and its results will feed into our future work,” said the EU official.

Palmowski took part in a progress meeting on 25 January 2023, organised by Transnational cooperation on the Missions (TRAMI), which has been tasked by the EC with coordinating the involvement of various public and private players until a permanent Horizon Europe EU Mission network is set up.

Palmowski told the meeting that to attract contributions from leading scientists, only actions focused on research and innovation should be funded under Horizon Europe so as not to dilute its focus or duplicate the tasks of other EU programmes.

“Funding for regional cooperation or other activities related to policy development should be funded from the European Regional Development Fund or other thematic programmes relevant for the topic of the mission, such as the EU4Health Programme or the LIFE Programme for climate related cooperation projects,” said Palmowski.

He said a key point made by the participants at the TRAMI meeting was that to be transformative, the missions must be led from the top.

“The missions must be there to strengthen the focus and effect on research and innovation, not dilute and weaken it,” he told University World News.

Comparisons with moon mission

Palmowski likened the magnitude of the Horizon Europe Mission ambitions to the original US mission to place a man on the moon and told University World News: “The moon mission was underpinned by transformational research and innovation and inspired a generation of scientists, companies and citizens towards a common goal that could not be achieved but for collaborating in new ways.

“Europe’s citizens will not look kindly on EU missions that fail to make breakthrough advances through research and innovation in tackling cancer, climate change and biodiversity because of a lack of research input or political interference.

“The moon landing was successful because it had the energy and resources needed and brought together some of the most brilliant minds and found a new way of collaborating by recognising and reinforcing the strengths of the different actors. On top of that, it had strong direction and leadership.

“However, with the EU Missions the political process has weakened many of the objectives. For instance, to what extent will a mission on cancer that aims to improve the lives of three million patients be more effective than an R&I programme focusing on cancer research?” he asked.

“The [EU] missions can only show their worth by really bringing together research actors in a new way and exploring new complementarities between fundamental research, applied research and innovation, as well as patient care and diagnostics,” Palmowski told University World News.

New calls

So far, €1.8 billion of the EU’s Horizon Europe budget has been spent and the EC has just launched new calls for 2023 worth over €600 million following the adoption of the Horizon Europe 2023-2024 work programme to support research and innovation under the five EU Missions.

Outlining details of its latest calls, the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation said the five Horizon Europe Missions “aim to bring concrete solutions to some of our greatest challenges by 2030, by putting research and innovation into a new role, combining it with new forms of governance and engagement with citizens”.

The European Commission claims the investment is “expected to result in better preparing local and regional authorities” to face climate-related risks, optimise minimally invasive diagnostic cancer interventions, restore at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers, provide climate city contracts with 100 cities, and roll out soil mission living labs.


Talking to Science|Business, Pirita Lindholm, director of the European Regions Research and Innovation Network (ERRIN), said that establishing governance appears to be the hardest part of the puzzle as political authorities and researchers slowly learn to speak each other’s language.

This point was reinforced by Wolfgang Polt, an Austrian member of TRAMI, who said: “The development of mission-oriented policies is very uneven in Europe, even within countries and administrations”, adding that high-level political agreement and a sense of urgency isn’t felt across the board, especially as the war in Ukraine and energy crisis hijack the political stage.

Joep Roet, EU policy adviser at the Netherlands House for Education and Research, told Science|Business the missions are “stuck between a rock and a hard place”.

They set out to link EU research and innovation policy with other policies, with research at the forefront, but Roet says thus far it feels more like other policy areas now have a say in research policy and that the five missions are just small pieces of an overall puzzle, unlike the ‘moon-shot’ they were envisioned to be.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at