Horizon Europe: South Africa looks back and looks forward

On 4 July 2014 University World News published the findings from a series of focus group ‘conversations’ that had been held across South African universities in response to the rebranded European Union (EU) framework programme, Horizon 2020.

Entitled ‘Tantalising, daunting for third countries …’, the two main findings were, generally speaking, how university infrastructure needed bolstering to participate in the sophistication of Horizon 2020 funding and, secondly, how African partners desired more equitable partnerships, both in the preparation of strategic areas of work programmes and in the implementation of successfully awarded projects themselves.

Horizon 2020 funds have since come and gone, with a number of projects still rounding off. Reports have been written, outcomes realised or unrealised and impact, as future-bound, is still unfolding.

South African organisations with their researchers and innovators have now geared up for Horizon Europe. At €95.5 billion (about US$102 billion) for the period from 2021-27, the funding envelope has been framed by the EU as the “most ambitious EU research and innovation programme ever” as well as the biggest multilateral research programme in the world.

Reflections about Horizon and South Africa

A recent European Commission-launched public consultation on the past, present and future of Horizon programmes, concluded during February and has prompted reflections about the Horizon programmes and South Africa.

So, what are the more recent South African conversations? Again, the source of these observations is narrated from the author’s observations across many training and advisory sessions involving a number of South African universities for the period of Horizon 2020 and leading up to, and now including, the start of Horizon Europe.

The sessions have been open to all in the universities who are interested in sourcing third-stream income but, with a predominance of early-to-mid career researchers, attending. In addition, the author has attended many of the EU information and training webinars to further contextualise this content.

First off is a lesser-known detail where South Africa’s position as a country eligible for accessing the actual funding from the global €95.5 billion was hanging in the balance. South Africa, positioned as a middle-income country, was potentially too ‘prosperous’ to receive funding, but could still participate in Horizon Europe projects through self-funding mechanisms.

For those potential beneficiaries of EU funding, this would have been, if not a death-knell for many niche research projects, at least an early disaster warning.

This stated, within the context that South Africa’s National Research Foundation, an important domestic resource mobilisation modality for South Africa’s national system of science and innovation, has had its budget cut by 9% in nominal terms in 2022-23.

On 17 June 2021, on the eve of the European Council, 2021, and as an outcome of important negotiations for South African scientists and innovators, South Africa was added to the list of countries automatically eligible for Horizon Europe Funding, with South African universities and institutions able to secure such ‘third-stream’ funding.

The existence of Horizon Europe’s funding for grand challenges and excellence science ‘clusters, destinations and calls’ with funds, is not a guarantee of projects landing in South African universities, the focus of this discussion.

South African researchers still confront both the confidence to write and submit proposals alongside the ongoing infrastructural concerns, the electricity crisis being yet another concern in the mix affecting the socio-economic practical and reputational areas of South Africa’s productivity.

Reluctance to initiate Horizon Europe projects

In working with active researchers who are highly cognisant of the need for research funding, and many, who are respected by their peers, there is still a lag or reticence to initiate a Horizon Europe project.

This comes from a complex mix. There is the enduring scholarly doubt – is the science as ‘beyond state of the art’ (an ‘excellent science’ criteria in applications) as the research team thinks it is?

Furthermore, amid intense research, teaching and supervision loads, with the massification of education being as it is in Africa, being a ‘pure’ research scientist is a luxury for South African faculty.

While many South African universities have escalated their commitment to, and funding of, their research offices, many of these are still resourced by research managers and administrators who have to span, and stretch themselves thinly, across the many key competencies required from research offices.

Alongside those infrastructural concerns, there is an absence of readily available mentors who have the time to share their success from highly sophisticated funding calls. And, success, indeed.

South African scientific and innovation grant awards, under Horizon 2020 (2014-20), within “the third country eligibility” pool (see Horizon Europe Regulation 2021/695), came fifth for participation and third for budget share.

South African and EU role-players within the South African strategic partnership of 1997 have gone a long way to educate on, stimulate and enable the application processes.

Sought-after expertise

South African expertise is respected and sought after for partnerships within these framework programmes, and South Africa’s success rate within a call stands at 28% where the average success rate, globally, is 21.8%.

South Africa is the leading country of 28 African countries in both the near-completed Horizon 2020 and the newly minted Horizon Europe awards. Already South African institutions have signed 72 contracts within the Horizon Europe programme that opened in 2021. This also includes active participation in the programme with some of the proposals being submitted, but not being retained.

South Africa also ranks eighth in terms of “non-EU countries (both associated and third countries) for attaining budget share, and 10th for participation.

In this latter group, South Africans are outranking United States scientists and innovators, as participants, as well as being ranked among countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Israel, Kenya and Nigeria.

This is according to Vincenzo Lorusso, who, on 27 February, spoke at an online event themed ‘Horizon Europe South African National Contact Points’ Network Announcement & Presentation of Work Programme 2023-24 and its Africa Initiative II – Focus on South Africa’.

Participation entails being active in a project, namely, that South Africans are part of signed grant contracts and are participating directly in the various pillars that Horizon Europe has on offer.

Sometimes South Africa might not be the main signatory to the grant contract, but they are part of a consortium. Other times, (less frequent), South Africans are co-signatories with the EU and South African institutions sign the contract.

However, this is not as powerful a measure as participation, as there are always more South Africans participating in the research projects than holding direct grants with the EU.

Yet, while noting these successes, the awards teams share that putting together a successful application involves many hours of trade-offs, and working beyond office hours, as well as being stretched to writing above and beyond their scholarly paradigms.

Researchers in the universities indicate that they need highly specific expertise to align their ‘world’ and discourses of scholarship and innovation to those of the funders’ highly specific discourses. Once an award is made, the management of that award requires considerable resources, which are not readily available in African research management offices.

Practically, it is better for South African partners to work within projects led by better-resourced European universities, but strategically, is this the case?

Increasing participation

It is no surprise that the established research councils, as well as better resourced research-intensive universities have been the beneficiaries of net EU contributions of Horizon 2020, with the South African Department of Science and Innovation anecdotally sharing that there is an urgent transformational need for EU funds to reach ‘other’ South African universities.

On 27 February, during the online event where the work programme for 2023-24 was outlined, South Africa announced 17 National Contact Points (NCPs) for the various pillars of Horizon Europe funding. This is according to, among others, a presentation by Tugela Matubatuba, the director of Strategic Partnerships in the South African Department of Science and Innovation.

These NCPs play a vital role in promoting and enabling researchers to learn about any areas of Horizon Europe for the purposes of accelerating South Africa’s participation in the programme.

In addition, South Africa also has a dedicated office in Brussels, ensuring ‘real-time’ and in-person contact within the EU quarter.

Added to this ecosystem are online resources such as Euraxess and ESASTAP, meetings, workshops and side events at policy summits that strengthen the relationships. The now accepted online environment has, and will also facilitate, greater access to the intricate building of relationships and skills that is inherent in award success.

Additionally, with the advent of the ring-fenced EU-African funding, Africans are now bolstering their voices in the strategic areas of Horizon Europe. The priorities and flagged topics under this funding envelope are the outcome of joint and sustained consultations between Africans and EU role-players, culminating in the 2020 Comprehensive EU strategy for Africa and the Global Approach to Research and Innovation.

Three priorities in particular are included in the ‘EU-Africa Global Gateway investment package’. These are the AU-EU Innovation Agenda, Earth observation and space, and regional Centres of Excellence in the area of the Green Transition.

There has been an escalation of consultation, specifically under the Euraxess banner and its African desk, with webinars, newsletters and flashnotes popularising and developing the capacity to Horizon Europe. Many of these webinars still appear to be Northern African focused with more Sub-Saharan African voices still needed to speak to the contents of the webinars.

What more needs to be done to increase participation?

There is also a measured need to take into account early-to-mid career funding that is more developmental in scope and does not assume the same academic career mentoring and exposure that is prevalent in the Global North.

The researchers attending these sessions, from which these observations are drawn, are young, scholarly, focused and poised on important pivots that could deeply benefit the human development and knowledge creation pipeline assuming they have access to the right mix of capabilities: funding, experience-sharing, exposure to internationalisation benchmarks, grant infrastructure and ring-fenced time and not trade-offs, for targeted fund-raising initiatives.

While, again, there are nods to the readiness and engagements that lead up to securing highly competitive research funds, South African university leadership, alongside funding agencies, need to do deep dives into what it means to be an aspiring, willing, yet hamstrung academic who wants to pit the excellence of their scholarship in an international domain, in more enabling and encouraging spaces than are currently on offer.

We call for innovation. Yet, where is this human(e) process-led innovation that is needed alongside the steelier grid lines of our current offerings?

Dr Charmaine Williamson is grant consultant to various universities. Williamson has managed projects for national and regional research programmes inclusive of the Southern Africa Research and Innovation Management Association, or SARIMA, as well as the Conflict and Governance Facility and the Parliamentary Support Programme, both partnership programmes of the EU and South Africa. In addition, Williamson has been contracted to do capacity-development around Calls for Proposals, under the auspices of a number of EU Delegations in Southern Africa.