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Follow the money

Lobbying to allocate Horizon 2020 funds is about to begin in earnest

So far, much of the discussion surrounding Horizon 2020 has revolved around questions about mechanisms and processes, such as setting overhead rates, and procedures to attract a wider pool of applicants.

Improvements on these fronts are valuable and at the lively and well-attended Research Europe conference on Horizon 2020 in Brussels on 21 June the mood regarding these changes was upbeat. But as the moment of truth approaches in 2013, more attention will focus on the question that matters most—the budget, and its allocation between different types of research.

The most important policy decision here isn’t the size of the overall budget—which is very much in the lap of the Gods—but rather the distribution of resources between different work streams. The Commission’s initial proposal, issued in November 2011, frames these streams differently to Framework 7, so it is difficult to see any re-distribution.

The distribution of research money to different disciplines and problems has always been more of an art than a science. Despite much discussion, no-one has ever figured out how to compare the ‘value’ of money spent on particle physics with that spent on ecology. Fortunately in the case of Horizon 2020 and Framework, much of the money is going to applied research, so it ought to be possible to look back and objectively assess and publicly spell out what different programmes have achieved. The fact that it is possible, however, doesn’t mean it will happen.

In a supplement to this issue published for the annual meeting of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators in Dublin, we take a look at the outcomes from Framework 7’s generous investments in information and communications technology. The landscape is not encouraging. Also in this issue, we report on the collapse of Nokia’s dominance of the mobile phone market, and its implications for Finnish R&D. That particular fable is something of a metaphor for Europe’s recent failure to compete in ICT innovation.

Energy, in contrast, is an area where Europe retains many competitive advantages. The Horizon 2020 proposal clearly acknowledges as much, allocating about €16 billion to transport, energy and climate change.

As is often (and regrettably) the case, resource allocations will probably end up as a fudge, based on hard-ball lobbying, conducted behind the scenes, by different industries, alongside the priorities of Commission officials, member states and MEPs. Ideally, this process would be augmented by the extensive and transparent assessment of what has been working in Framework 7 applied research, and what hasn’t, allied to an effective technology foresight exercise.

There’s also a need for far greater late-stage flexibility in Horizon 2020. The seven-year budget, which will be set next year by member states and the European Parliament, is designed to provide stability. But these parties need to allow the Commission greater flexibility to shift resources, if necessary, as Horizon 2020 unfolds. Even the best technology foresight isn’t good enough to predict what our priorities will look like in 2019.