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The company that developed HELIOtube, an inflatable solar heat collector, received funding under Horizon 2020. The European Commission plans to give innovation a bigger boost in Horizon Europe.


Europe’s science spending set for another big boost

On 7 June, the European Commission will lay out detailed plans for one of the biggest single research programs on the planet. Called Horizon Europe, the program could be worth €97.6 billion between 2021 and 2027, up from about €77 billion for the current 7-year program, Horizon 2020. Its influence, however, will go beyond size.

Europe's research programs provide stable funding for 7 years, some of it up for grabs for researchers around the world. And although they represent less than 10% of the total research money available in the European Union, the continuous growth of the EU science budget in the past decades, at the expense of agriculture and regional development, is a clear signal that it sees research and innovation as the future drivers of its economy.

Next week's proposals are unlikely to contain major surprises, because the commission has unveiled its main ideas over the past months, in particular its overall 7-year budget plan, issued on 2 May. Although Horizon Europe will keep Horizon 2020's main features, the commission has laid the groundwork for several novelties, including a new agency to tackle the continent's perennial innovation problem and a big, separate push on collaborative defense research. But contentious negotiations lie ahead. The United Kingdom is negotiating the terms of its impending exit from the European Union, and some member states want to tighten budgets. Meanwhile, research advocates want more generous spending, noting the low application success rates in Horizon 2020—a frustrating 11.9% so far.

Like previous programs, Horizon Europe will have three main "pillars"; next week's plan will detail how much money could go to each. The first component, called Open Science, will provide funding for projects "driven by researchers themselves," as the commission puts it, through the well-liked basic research grants of the European Research Council (ERC) in Brussels and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships for doctoral programs, postdocs, and staff exchanges. This part of the program is largely unchanged from Horizon 2020.

The second pillar, Global Challenges, will set so-called missions addressing issues "that worry us daily such as the fight against cancer, clean mobility, and plastic-free oceans," says a commission fact sheet. The "missions" are meant to be flexible, as priorities change, and they appear to have a sharper focus than the "societal challenges" named in a comparable pillar of Horizon 2020, including energy and food security.

The third part of Horizon Europe, called Open Innovation, addresses an old problem: Europe's shortage of successful innovative businesses, despite its world-class science. At the moment, EU science funding for businesses largely goes through sizable public-private partnerships involving big firms, for example in the fields of aeronautics and pharmaceuticals. Now, EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas is launching a new project, the European Innovation Council (EIC), to encourage startup companies and "breakthrough technologies."

The commission says EIC will differ from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in Budapest, set up in 2008. EIT—the pet project of former commission President José Manuel Barroso—brings together businesses, research centers, and universities in six pan-European "Innovation Communities." Some observers say EIC's creation signals that EIT didn't quite deliver and is being marginalized.

Science on the rise

The European Union's average annual research spending would continue to grow under the commission's proposal for Horizon Europe.


EIC will use the ingredients that made ERC successful: focusing on individual entrepreneurs rather than big cross-border teams, letting ideas emerge from the bottom up, and keeping grants and procedures simple. Its success "will depend on putting the right evaluation system into place," says Austrian sociologist and former ERC President Helga Nowotny. "It takes excellence to recognize excellence." But many universities are upset that the current pilot program for EIC, worth €2.7 billion for 3 years, didn't include them in its group of advisers. "Next to CEOs and entrepreneurs, there is also room for researchers," says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities in Leuven, Belgium. He adds that there are more pressing barriers to innovation than a lack of funding, noting that the European Union's 28 member states "have 28 different schemes for taxation, intellectual property, bankruptcy."

In addition to Horizon Europe, the commission has proposed another bold move for research: setting aside €4.1 billion over 7 years as a separate budget line for defense research, up from just €90 million under an ongoing 3-year pilot program. Member states have long been lukewarm about cooperation in this secretive area, where national interests prevail. But in times of growing "geopolitical instability," as the commission puts it, some member states seem more willing to pool resources.

Yet some 700 scientists have signed a petition against any EU funding of military research; others worry the plan could come at the expense of nonmilitary science. "We will oppose anything that could take funding away from Horizon Europe's civilian research," says Maud Evrard, head of policy at Science Europe in Brussels, a group of national science funding agencies and research organizations.

The commission's €97.6 billion opening bid represents a 27% increase from the previous 7-year period—or even a 46% rise if compared to Horizon 2020 without the share of the United Kingdom, which is leaving the European Union in March 2019. But with some member states keen to tighten the European Union's purse strings, Horizon Europe's budget is likely to go down in coming negotiations with the European Parliament and EU member states. As a result, both Evrard and Deketelaere say they are disappointed that the commission didn't aim higher.

Negotiations for such programs can easily stretch to at least 18 months, but the commission wants to make as much progress as possible before elections to renew the European Parliament—which usually is very supportive of research—in May 2019. That will give the United Kingdom a chance to help shape the 7-year plan before it loses its seats in Parliament and the European Council. "We need to make the most of these channels whilst we can," Jessica Cole, head of policy at the Russell Group, a London-based group of 24 leading U.K. universities, wrote in a blog post on 4 May.

The United Kingdom has made clear that it wants to keep taking part in EU research programs after it leaves the bloc. This will require buying its way in through a bilateral association agreement, as other, smaller, non-EU countries such as Norway and Israel do. Other non-EU countries will be following the negotiations closely. Under Moedas's mantra of "Open Science, Open Innovation, Open to the World," the commission is likely to lift restrictions and make it easier for countries outside Europe and its immediate neighborhood to buy a stake in the research flagship—a sign that Europe's horizons are widening further.