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What might the ninth Framework programme look like? Laura Greenhalgh reports.

The end of Horizon 2020 is still more than four years away, but attention is already turning to the next Framework programme. Internal consultations are underway and many further closed-door meetings and public consultations are planned to determine the shape of Framework 9.

Just as Horizon 2020 was a significant departure from Framework 7 in scope, budget and operations, some big changes are predicted for its successor, which will begin in 2021. “We have to be open to new approaches,” says Robert-Jan Smits, director-general for research and innovation.

These may include changes to objectives and structure, senior advisers say. The innovation agenda, defence research and cloud computing are among the topics tipped to dominate EU research funding in the next decade.

Under Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, Framework 9 could have an even stronger focus on innovation, says Dan Andrée, a special adviser at Sweden’s Ministry of Education and Research. One approach could be to merge Framework 9 with the small business programme Cosme and the infrastructure programme CEF to create a wider competitiveness programme. “Juncker doesn’t see research as a priority; he sees it as a policy instrument.”

Observers say that the Commission also needs to confront two major problems that arose in Horizon 2020. The first is a sense that the societal challenges haven’t galvanised collaborative academic research. The second is the floundering of efforts to better coordinate the national research programmes of member states, such as joint programming.

The problems with these coordination measures are, arguably, the greatest single challenge for Framework 9, says Andrée. One approach, he says, would be to abandon joint programming altogether, and adjust the societal challenges pillar of Horizon 2020 to fill the gap.

Christian Naczinsky, head of EU research policy at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economy, proposes the opposite approach: to reallocate the €28 billion of societal challenges money in Horizon 2020 to joint programming, administered by national agencies. This would increase member-state buy-in, and force weaker members to beef-up their research systems, he says.

Smits says that the Commission is open to new objectives and structures for Framework 9. It will gather input from a high-level group due to assemble in January, as well as public consultation, he says. “We have at the moment three pillars for excellent science, industrial leadership and the societal challenges, but we have to determine if these are still the right approaches,” he says. “Some people may say that two pillars would be better: one on investigator-driven and one on mission-driven research.”

Other topics on Smits’ agenda include the balance of grants and loans, highlighted as a pivotal point for universities. “I support a strong emphasis on grants, because a lot of our main beneficiaries are not allowed to take out loans.”

It is also likely that the perennial tussle between basic and applied funding and appropriate Technology Readiness Levels will continue—alongside the equally thorny problem of the performance divide between old and new member states. “We will have to decide whether we should give more attention inside Horizon 2020 to this issue, or continue with the focus I have put on deploying the structural funds,” Smits says.

And Framework 9 will be influenced by the EU’s plan to back a specific European defence research programme. However, the precise shape of this is likely to be set by policymakers outside the research arena.

Carlos Moedas, the research commissioner, is expected to keep pushing for a European Open Science Cloud, which could include money for infrastructure and mandatory rules on data storage. One Brussels lobbyist predicts that the allocation for this under Framework 9 could mushroom from the €2bn estimate now to as much as €7bn.

Most observers think that the European Research Council and the rest of the Excellent Science pillar, as well as industrial funding, will continue largely unaltered, apart from a rebrand of innovation programmes under the banner of the European Innovation Council. Framework 9 is also likely to be the first programme without the UK as a full member. The loss of one of the continent’s heavyweight research systems could swing support away from programmes such as the ERC.

Smits says that the Commission is ready to consider radical suggestions from all individuals and organisations when it launches a public consultation in early 2017. “We want to know what works, and what doesn’t,” he says.

The Commission will then be on a tight timeframe, planning to set out major themes during 2017 and draft legislation in 2018. That will be considered by the European Parliament and Council of Ministers ahead of the parliamentary elections in May 2019. Moedas will be anxious to fix the details of the programme—the major legacy of his term—before the Commission changeover in October 2019, when he will make way for the next research chief.

This article also appeared in Research Europe