BRUSSELS—"We need to learn the art of listening." "There's no taboo, no bad ideas." "I can assure you your contribution will be considered."
These sound like the messages you hear at a small-team brainstorming session—not a 3-day science policy congress with 5000 attendees. But the encouraging words were spoken here last week at the European Research and Innovation Days, where policy bigwigs working with the European Commission invited the audience to help shape Europe's next 7-year research funding program, Horizon Europe, set to begin in 2021. Their message: Anyone can help "cocreate" the program's outlines. "Our instruction to staff was: Don't promote, listen," says Kurt Vandenberghe, director for policy development and coordination at the commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation here.
It is a change of tone for the commission, whose research programs are often seen as bureaucratic machines. The conference took place in a drafty former car factory, rather than in an anonymous commission venue, and it had the informal air of a tech startup convention. Civil servants in booths were instructed to welcome attendees to discuss research priorities "as if they were hosting you at home," in the words of Jean-Éric Paquet, the commission's director-general for research and innovation.
The shift comes at a time when growing populist movements are criticizing the European Union as undemocratic and out of touch with the concerns of its citizens. Vandenberghe says the commission aims to reach beyond the usual "stakeholder groups"—universities, researchers, businesses—to include the interests and priorities of cities, pension funds, health insurers, nongovernmental organizations, and science museums, for example. Some attendees were skeptical. "It's a search for legitimacy," says one academic and government expert from France. "Is it truly participatory? Not yet."
The commission aims to fix problems in Horizon 2020, the current program, which a 2017 midterm review said is yielding good, incremental results but generating few big breakthroughs and showing little tangible, large-scale impact on society. For Horizon Europe, the commission aims to measure the impact of the whole program or of a portfolio of projects, rather than for single ones. It also wants the public to tell it which research targets it values the most. "We need more relevance and accountability of science to society," Vandenberghe says, although he adds, "We will never infringe on the autonomy of scientists and won't prescribe their day to day."
The "cocreation" effort is focused largely on Horizon Europe's second and largest "pillar," called Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness and worth €52.7 billion. It includes six thematic "clusters" to fund the bulk of collaborative research projects and five so-called missions, a pet project of outgoing research commissioner Carlos Moedas. Inspired by the Apollo program to put a human on the moon, the missions are headline targets, still to be defined, in five broad areas: cancer, climate, cities, soil, and oceans. "I don't want public servants to say what the missions are," Moedas said at the event. "I want to cocreate these missions with the people … and transform them into something very easy to understand."
At a handful of "codesign" sessions at the conference, participants sat in small circles with a member of the mission board to share ideas in response to questions such as: "Why are these challenges [for our oceans, coasts, and inland waters] so removed from public perception and how could a mission best engage European citizens in tackling these?" But many of the codesign sessions were standard panel discussions. And attendees largely came from the policy circles and lobby groups that have helped shape EU science policy in the past; laypeople were virtually absent.
"My take is that the commission was genuinely trying out a new format. … There was a real willingness to listen," says Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities here. But it remains to be seen what the commission will do with the input, he says.
The outcome of the codesign effort, along with an online survey that closes on 4 October, will feed into a "strategic plan" the commission is developing for the first 4 years of Horizon Europe, whose proposed €94 billion budget is still to be agreed on by the European Parliament and member states.
Beyond helping define the clusters and missions, the exercise may help remedy another problem identified by the Horizon 2020 review: Ordinary citizens hardly know EU research programs. "It's a problem for the legitimacy of [research] budgets," Vandenberghe says. That's why the commission needs to promote its research work more aggressively, Moedas emphasized last week. "Even if we do a bit of oversell, don't worry," he said. "We are still underselling ourselves."