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Mission: development

Framework 9 looks set to be shaped in part by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Craig Nicholson considers what this might mean.

The EU must constantly prove that it spends taxpayer money well. Therefore, its programmes need to have a compelling narrative, a raison d’etre, to avoid being dropped. Last month, the European Commission suggested that the UN Sustainable Development Goals could form the basis of the Framework 9 story.

The SDGs are intended to improve human wellbeing without harming future generations. Unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, they’re meant to be pursued by both rich and poor countries. In September 2015, the 193 national governments of the UN General Assembly made a non-binding commitment to “work tirelessly” to achieve them by 2030.

There are 17 SDGs, including ending poverty and providing access to energy. They encompass 169 targets, such as reducing global maternal mortality to less than 70 per 100,000 live births.

The SDGs did not exist when Horizon 2020 was designed around the EU’s Europe 2020 strategy, which focuses on jobs and growth. Nevertheless, Horizon 2020 aims to allocate 60 per cent of its funding to projects that contribute to sustainable development (as of January, it was underperforming at 53 per cent).

So how might the SDGs shape Framework 9? And will they change the programme’s direction?

Many organisations have made suggestions. On 22 June, the European Parliament’s environment committee approved a report saying that Framework 9 should “integrate better the concept of sustainable development”.

Seb Dance, the British MEP who led on that report, told Research Europe that the EU “got off to a great start” in linking Horizon 2020 to sustainability, but that the programme “hasn’t quite delivered the synergies with sustainable development” that were hoped for. He said that every project funded by Framework 9 should be checked against the SDGs to make sure there is a contribution.

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities referred extensively to the SDGs in its Framework 9 recommendations paper. Jan Palmowski, the group’s secretary-general, said it would make sense to use the SDGs to frame the overall goals of the programme, given that the EU hasn’t yet agreed on a political strategy beyond 2020.

The advantage of using the SDGs to shape Framework 9 is that they can “make visible the contributions of research in addressing the fundamental issues of our time”, he says. The SDGs have also already been endorsed by national governments, and they relate to challenges that would benefit from coordinated effort.

Both suggestions might well be adopted by the EU. However, the report of the high-level group tasked by the Commission with formulating a vision for the Framework programme probably provides the best indication of what to expect.

This report said the SDGs should “serve as a global reference framework” for defining the “missions” that Framework 9 should use to better connect it with the public. Robert-Jan Smits, the Commission’s director-general of research, said last month that there were plans to have several such missions in each of Framework 9’s societal challenges—which cover research towards improving people’s lives. He wants the SDGs to be a main shaper of this part of the programme.

The Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres called for a focus on the SDGs in its Framework 9 position paper. Annika Thies, director of the association’s Brussels office, is in favour of the societal challenges being “explicitly oriented towards the SDGs”. She says this part of the programme has the greatest potential to contribute to the UN goals.

Palmowski also supports the idea of the SDGs being used to shape the societal challenge missions. But they should not shape Framework 9 in its entirety, he says.

Basic research, such as that funded by the European Research Council, should continue to be defined by researchers themselves, Palmowski says, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. “We need to find ways to allow researchers to use their imagination and expertise to contribute to achieving the SDGs,” he says.

Shaping Framework 9’s missions around the SDGs will be challenging. Palmowski suggests the Commission should organise discussions with academics about how broad such missions should be, just as the UN worked with academics when it was developing the goals.

But there is widespread agreement that giving the SDGs a substantial role in shaping Framework 9 will boost both the programme and the goals. As Thies says: “If the EU actively promoted the SDGs by integrating them into its research agenda, this could have a positive impact on all UN countries and turn commitment into action.”

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This article also appeared in Research Europe