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Framework 7 in retrospect

JPIs, JTIs, ERC, ERA-Net: Manfred Horvat considers the successes, problems and lessons for the future in the past seven years of EU science funding.

Since Framework 5, which ran from 1998 to 2002, each Framework programme has been seen as a break with the past. This is especially true of Framework 7. The programme, which began in 2007 and concludes at the end of this year, has increased the ‘Europeanisation’ of research and technology and brought the European Research Area closer to being a reality.

Designed to support the Lisbon strategy to make Europe the most competitive knowledge-based economic area in the world, Framework 7 has been more policy-driven than its predecessors. It has also been longer: at seven years, rather than four, participants, policymakers and managers have had more time to adapt to changes and exploit opportunities.

Framework 7 is the world’s largest competitive research and innovation programme. It is the first Framework programme in which more than 100,000 participants have been involved and for which the budget topped €50 billion. Innumerable collaborative links have been built, strengthening and tightening the connections in the fabric of European R&D.

For years, scientists lobbied for a Europe-wide, competitive funding scheme for principal investigators, taking a bottom-up approach and not requiring international mobility. Framework 7 has met this desire in the form of the European Research Council. Thanks to skilful marketing, the ERC has been embraced as a world-class badge of quality. And the developing relationship between the ERC and national funders may lead national bodies to seek a role in managing, funding and organising the Pan-European research pot. This would bring the ERA much closer. But the ERC’s success must not obscure the need for improvement. For example, we need to understand why applicants in the most recent member states are so much less successful than those in others.

Building on the success of the European Technology Platforms, several Joint Technology Initiatives have been launched in Framework 7. Despite inadequate financial and organisational regulations to start with, they have become flagships, putting industrial and academic weight behind medium-term and long-term strategic research agendas. The first five JTIs, on technologies including embedded computing and fuel cells, are now at full throttle, and Europe’s ability to launch and sustain such actions is the envy of the world. Industrial leadership is an important feature of the JTIs, and universities must be equally important partners in knowledge transfer and strategy development.

The coordination of national policies and programmes was once thought almost impossible. But in Framework 6, the ERA-Net scheme to help research collaboration and coordination was a surprising success. Quick uptake by programme owners and managers led to further strengthening in Framework 7, through ERA-Net Plus. However, national funders’ inability or unwillingness to align their rules and procedures is still a problem. A framework that combines provisions for national flexibility with common rules and principles of participation and evaluation would be real progress towards the ERA.

ERA-Net led to the launch of Joint Programming Initiatives, which aim to develop powerful European programmes by coordinating and aligning national efforts in areas such as agriculture and ageing. However, none of the 10 JPIs has yet achieved critical mass; the financial commitments hardly exceed those for ERA-Net initiatives and—again—there is no ERA framework to support implementation. Shifts in global R&D landscapes and power structures call for a reworked balance between national interests and European needs, as well as increased awareness that cooperation and joining forces is the way forward.

Horizon 2020 will bring further breaks from the past. The emphasis will be split between excellent research, innovation and commercialisation. The mainstreaming of social sciences and humanities into the societal challenges will need effort from all parties. Integration of interdisciplinary and intersectoral groupings must be a guiding principle, not tokenism. In human resource development, the complementary roles of the Marie Curie Actions and the ERC have to be strengthened.

Studies of the long-term effect of the Framework programmes show that they attract high-quality ideas and top researchers, and support excellent consortia involving academia and industry from Europe and elsewhere. They aid knowledge creation, strengthen the R&D workforce and build networks as a basis for open innovation.

Collaboration between industry and academia has led to novel ideas and new products. Nevertheless, impact assessment will continue to be a challenge, and developing the tools to provide decision-makers and the public with evidence of the importance of research, technology and innovation at a European level must be high on the agenda.

Manfred Horvat is honorary professor of European and international research and technology cooperation at the Vienna University of Technology.

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