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EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel said the openness of Horizon Europe funding would be balanced with the need “to protect the interests of Europe.”

© European Union 2021

Europe loosens funding rules for non-EU quantum and space researchers

The European Union has walked back an attempt to bar some non-EU nations from access to quantum computing and space projects. A major new round in the €95.5 billion Horizon Europe funding program announced today will allow some non-EU countries to join such projects—but the European Union will seek special “assurances” to guarantee its interests will be protected.

Horizon Europe launched in February with calls for curiosity-driven basic research proposals from the European Research Council. But details of themed calls that specify subject areas, which account for the majority of the budget, were not published until today because of a monthslong dispute over who can join them.

The European Commission, the European Unions executive arm, had wanted to bar the United Kingdom, Israel, Switzerland, and several other countries from participating in dozens of quantum computing and space projects, which it believes to be of strategic importance to the European Union. But a coalition of EU member states, led by Germany, pushed back, arguing to include associate” countries that pay for full access to EU research programs. The United Kingdom struck such a deal last year, whereas Switzerland and Israel hope to renew the association agreements they had for Horizon 2020, Horizon Europes predecessor.

A compromise worked out earlier this month allows associate countries to take part in quantum and space projects, including nearly two dozen identified as particularly sensitive, as long as they provide assurances” to protect the European Union’s strategic interests. In the coming months, the Commission and member states will work out what exactly those assurances are, and the 21 affected calls are expected to open in October. The Commission also would need the support of a majority of EU member states before an associate country could be excluded from a call.

“This is the most open program in the world,” EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel insisted at a press conference today. But, she added, “This openness will be balanced with the need to protect the interests of Europe in the strategic domain, in particular, to promote the technological sovereignty of the union, its leadership, and its competitiveness.”

The compromise is extremely significant because it puts the onus on the Commission to make a specific argument about the exclusion, which then has to be approved by the member states,” says Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. Whats been re-established is the burden of proof.”

Researchers in nonassociated countries such as the United States, who can normally join Horizon Europe projects at their own cost, would still be excluded from the restricted calls.

Government officials in the countries that the Commission sought to exclude seem cautiously optimistic. One, who asked not to be identified even by nationality, says, The original proposal was overly harsh, whereas where theyve ended up is a more balanced place.” However, The assurances' are not defined, we dont know what they mean,” the official says. 

A Swiss official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says the undefined assurances” mean there could yet be further wrangling over access to quantum and space calls. It just gives more time to find a compromise between member states and the Commission on the openness of the program.”

The “assurances” could mean restrictions on the transfer of intellectual property to other non-EU countries, Palmowski speculates. That may be appropriate for grants to researchers in the private sector, he says. But it wouldnt be appropriate if this affected publicly funded universities that are subject to the kind of ethics and the kind of norms that would be part of any consideration for association.”

The compromise also allows researchers in candidate” associate countries to join the quantum and space calls, reflecting the fact that association talks are unlikely to be concluded in time for the first proposal submission deadlines. A total of 16 countries had association agreements for Horizon 2020, including Norway, Tunisia, Turkey, North Macedonia, and Ukraine. Besides the United Kingdom, all have yet to ink a new deal for participation in Horizon Europe, although different countries associate on different terms, and some—such as Norway—are more or less guaranteed to be included. A leaked document from the European Council, the EU legislative body representing member states, anticipates that several agreements could be signed toward the end of this year.

But the Council dossier, dated 31 May and obtained by Science, also implies that Switzerland, which pulled out last month from long-running negotiations over a major new treaty with Europe, may not currently be a candidate at all. A footnote in the dossier says, The engagement with Switzerland on its association terms is on hold due to broader issues in EU-CH relations.” Swiss officials based in countries where the European Union has delegations say they have since stopped receiving invitations to EU events and gatherings.