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Research managers told to prepare for ‘radical’ EU changes

Image: Craig Nicholson for Research Professional News

Earma 2022: European research expert Sean McCarthy says Covid-19 “changed the thinking” in Brussels

Research managers and administrators have been told to prepare for “radical” changes to the EU’s R&D programmes, resulting in part from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sean McCarthy (pictured), a consultant with decades of experience advising on EU R&D programmes, suggested at the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Earma) conference that Covid-19 had “completely changed the thinking” on R&D among European Commission officials in Brussels.

This is because the pandemic served as a “real-life mission” of the kind that has been introduced to the 2021-27 iteration of the EU R&D programme, Horizon Europe.

Mission-driven research with specific targets, such as reducing mortality from cancer or driving down greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount, has become a major focus of funding agencies.

The EU has started five of its own research missions—covering cities, climate, cancer, oceans and soil—for Horizon Europe. These have been allocated €1.9 billion over the first three years of the programme, a significant portion of the overall spending.

Even the Commission believes this is much less than the missions will need to achieve its goals, such as making 100 cities climate-neutral by 2030, because the EU money is intended to bring in investment from other sources.

Evolution of new schemes

Giving a talk on the evolution of the EU’s nine R&D Framework programmes to date—of which Horizon Europe is the latest—McCarthy pointed out that when new elements have previously been introduced on a small scale like the missions they have tended to grow into major parts of future programmes.

He cited examples including the SME Instrument for small and medium-sized enterprises. This has evolved into the European Innovation Council, a much broader funding scheme that has a budget of €10bn for the seven years of Horizon Europe.

Missions are only on the scale of “an experiment” in Horizon Europe, which was planned before Covid-19 struck, but with the lessons learned from rapidly tailoring research to tackle the pandemic they could become a much bigger part of future programmes, McCarthy suggested.

“Are you getting ready for these kind of radical changes?” he asked the gathered research managers and administrators.

McCarthy suggested that the European Research Council could also form a bigger part of future EU R&D programmes, arguing that lobbying for more money for participant-led schemes like the ERC was much simpler than arguing for bigger budgets across the many themes of politically led thematic schemes like the missions.

He also warned that EU R&D programmes had become increasingly complex, and that this had caused research management and administration to require a growing number of specialists in specific areas of the programmes.

Read more news from the conference on the Research Professional News Earma 2022 page.