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Horizon 2020: evolution, not revolution

Simplified €80bn research funding programme for 2014-20

Horizon 2020, the next EU research funding programme, looks like it will maintain the core elements of its predecessor Framework 7.

The proposed programme would split its funds between three main headings: excellent science (€24.6billion); industrial leadership (€17.9bn); and societal challenges (€31.7bn). The agendas for these three priorities would be set by academics, industry and policymakers respectively, a European Commission official said. The proposal also includes a single, revised set of rules to simplify funding applications, reporting and auditing.

Despite this simpler structure, the Horizon 2020 proposal, which was presented by the Commission on 30 November, is not the “break from the past” announced by the research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, says Alasdair Reid, director of the science and innovation policy consultancy Technopolis in Brussels.

“There isn’t really a radical change,” Reid told Research Europe. “The resources are still not focused enough, and there remains lots of room for lobbies to fragment the funding even more.”

For instance, the Industrial Leadership category proposes to split funding between information technologies, nanotechnologies, advanced materials, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and space; as well as risk finance and specific funding for small businesses.

“To have a real division of labour, the Commission would need to focus on a few main topics,” Reid adds. “Anything else could be dealt with elsewhere, for example through national funding and joint programming, or structural funds [for regional development].”

Under the proposal the Commission would distribute about €80 bn from 2014 to 2020, up from about €53bn under Framework 7. This includes €13.3bn for basic research through the European Research Council (a 77 per cent increase compared with 2007-13) and €5.7bn for researchers’ training and mobility under the Marie Curie Actions (up 21 per cent).

Several industry groups have voiced their satisfaction with the Commission’s focus on applied research and innovation throughout the programme. For example, the biotechnology lobby EuropaBio praised “the emphasis under Horizon 2020 on the significant role played by industry-driven research, both as co-sponsor of public-private partnerships and participant in programmes as evaluators and contributors”.

The Societal Challenges section is divided into six areas, broadly focused on health; food and agriculture; energy; transport; climate; and inclusive, secure societies. The Commission says Horizon 2020 will not prescribe specific research topics, but will be more flexible and open to different types of interdisciplinary projects—a departure from previous programmes.

However, “it looks as if there is a lot of continuity” between the six challenges and the 10 themes of Framework 7’s cooperation programme, says John Smith, deputy secretary general of the European Universities’ Association in Brussels. “Basic science and training should have a place in these societal challenges too,” Smith argues. “Universities have a major role to play in the way these are developed, during the drafting of the programme’s details before the calls for proposals are made.”

On the basic research front, the League of European Research Universities says the budget increases are not sufficient for the ERC and Marie Curie Actions. The proposed increases should be compared with funding levels in the last years of Framework 7, whose budget increased year on year, rather than over the whole seven-year period, the League told Research Europe. For example, the European Research Council’s budget is planned to be just under €1.8bn in 2013, while the proposed €13.3bn under Horizon 2020 represents about €1.9bn a year.

The Commission’s proposal also contains a single set of rules to lighten the administrative burden on funding recipients, including the abolition of time sheets for researchers working full-time on an EU-funded project. The Commission aims to decrease the average time from end of call to grant allocation to 250 days—from 350 days—and to cap the share of funding recipients subject to audit to 7 per cent.

The Commission proposes a 20 per cent flat rate to reimburse overhead costs. Leru has cautiously welcomed this, saying this would hopefully “not discourage universities to use full costing for internal management and organisational purposes, as this contributes significantly to the modernisation of Europe’s higher education.”

The EUA was less enthusiastic about the proposal. “It may be a simplification for the Commission, but not for the recipients,” Smith says. “It’s a contradiction to increase the overall budget but decrease reimbursement rates.”

Reid, however, says the proposal shows the Commission is committed to making life easier for universities. “There may be an unfortunate trade-off, but it seems like the Commission is genuinely concerned about simplification,” he says. “And it is still a proposal—universities still have time to voice their concerns and lobby through the European Parliament.”