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E.U. Reaches Decisive Deal on Horizon 2020

BRUSSELS— Negotiators from the European Union's three main institutions have struck an informal agreement on the content of the next E.U. research funding program, called Horizon 2020. In addition to clarifying the program's rules, the 25 June agreement will allow for new ways to fund research in small businesses and in underperforming member states.

The legal package has a few more hoops to jump through: It has to be formally endorsed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament plenary in the coming months. But the deal between negotiators from the European Commission, the Parliament, and member states has been praised as a landmark that will enable the timely rollout of the 7-year program—due to start in 2014 and potentially worth €70 billion over 7 years.

Thomas Estermann, head of unit at the European University Association, says that the tripartite deal is a "relief," as some universities feared that lengthier negotiations could delay the program. "It's important for our researchers that there is no gap" between the current program and the next, says Teresa Riera Madurell, a former academic from Spain and one of the lead negotiators for the European Parliament.

The agreement maintains the three-part structure and funding system proposed by the European Commission in November 2011, with small changes to the budget breakdown and some new elements.

One of the negotiation's main stumbling blocks was the funding model. The commission and the member states pushed for using a single flat rate for the reimbursement of indirect research costs. But the Parliament sided with universities and research organizations, which said that the flat rate could unfairly decrease their funding levels and asked for the possibility to claim the reimbursement of actual costs in full.

The Parliament eventually consented to using the single flat rate only, which Estermann says is a "disappointment" for universities. But "the funding model is only one element" that can help simplify E.U. funding procedures, he adds. The implementation and interpretation of the rules are also very important, and the commission should involve funding recipients in this process to get their input in light of their experience with other funding programs, Estermann says.

The member states' firm posture on the funding model allowed the Parliament to push through some of its other demands—such as dedicating 85% of the energy research funds to renewable energies and creating a Fast Track to Innovation funding tool, which will be launched as a small-scale pilot. It also convinced the member states to earmark 4% of the program's funding pie over 7 years to a funding instrument for small businesses, inspired by the Small Business Innovation Research program that U.S. science agencies have run for the past 3 decades.

All parties also agreed to set up a dedicated budget line called "widening participation," which will receive 1% of the Horizon 2020 budget. Riera says that "this is about helping smaller research groups that participate in [E.U. programs] less than they could," through activities such as staff exchanges or twinning between institutions. This is not just about helping poorer, less experienced countries catch up with richer states, Riera adds, but more generally about helping all researchers thrive.

The program will consist of three main parts, known as "pillars." The first part, called "excellent science," will fund basic research. It includes the European Research Council, which will receive about 17% of the program's budget for its elite research grants—up from 15% in the current program. The second pillar aims to promote Europe's leadership in several industrial technologies; and the last component will fund research and innovation in fields identified as major societal challenges, such as climate change or population aging. The rest of Horizon 2020's budget will be split between the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, and the Euratom program for nuclear research.

The overall budget figure for Horizon 2020 is still unconfirmed, as talks on the European Union's budget for 2014 to 2020 are ongoing. Speaking to journalists here yesterday, Irish research minister Seán Sherlock appeared confident that Horizon 2020 would receive about €70 billion from the E.U. budget—€10 billion less than the commission's initial request.