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Horizon 2020 restrictions are inevitable but regrettable

Global research collaboration contains, at its heart, an awkward paradox. Governments will say publicly that they want more international collaboration. But the main argument for domestic research spending is that it bolsters national industrial competitiveness. So, if you’re doing this for competitive advantage, why do it jointly with your competitors?

If the main argument for boosting Framework is to maximise European competitiveness—at the expense of the rest of the world—why should the programme be open to researchers working in established rival nations? Why should it be open to the US, or to China, India and Brazil?

This question is behind the release last week of a Commission strategy document that has flagged up a likely change of rules for international participation in Horizon 2020. Framework 7 collaborations are open to full participation by researchers working in countries whose GNI or income per head falls below a certain level—poorer countries, in other words. However, under Horizon 2020, an additional threshold will be introduced, the document says, closing the door to people in countries whose total GDP is above an as-yet-unspecified level.

The document notes that participation will still be allowed where reciprocal deals have been reached to allow EU researchers into the other country’s programmes. One such deal already exists with the US National Institutes of Health. That example isn’t much of a ‘deal’ however: most of the NIH’s programmes have always been open to overseas researchers.

It is worth mentioning why that is so. Most NIH is research directed at supporting its mission of treating disease. If someone in, say, Vladivostok has an interesting approach to some aspect of that, the NIH may fund them. The US National Science Foundation is quite different: it’s there to foster US science. It wouldn’t do that by spending overseas.

Most national science agencies in Europe are like the NSF, and can get into trouble if they send money abroad. That’s been a big problem in making funds portable, even inside the EU.

Framework falls somewhere in between. It is there to build science in Europe. It also exists to boost competitiveness in particular industries; and it confronts ‘grand challenges’, such as ageing or climate change.

That makes it hard to decide just how open Horizon 2020 ought to be. In cutting off some developing countries (we don’t know which, yet) the Commission is responding to the plain fact that some of them are now our competitors. But in mentioning the NIH arrangement, the Commission hints that it desires reciprocal arrangements with emerging powers.

Unfortunately, India, China and South Africa aren’t ready for such reciprocal deals. When you consider Europe’s national agencies won’t even open their programmes to each other, we can hardly blame them.

The EU is moving towards a default position in which close friends and the indigent can get in to Horizon 2020, but rivals can’t. This is perhaps inevitable, but far from ideal. Europe should, instead, be widening access: but that would require a self-assuredness—a confidence that Europeans will be first off the mark to exploit research results—that we still, understandably but regrettably, lack.