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Fight to the finish

In spite of its ambition, Horizon 2020 is beginning to look like Framework 8.

This week in Brussels, Europe’s leaders will meet once again to attempt to negotiate the EU multi-year budget for 2014-20. It is not at all clear that an outcome will be reached, but whether that happens now or later in the year, the settlement for Horizon 2020 is likely to be less generous than was envisaged only a few months ago.

Researchers have two main interests in the shape of Horizon 2020: how much money will there be? And to what extent will the programme be vibrant and open to competition, especially to those unfamiliar with and daunted by European Commission application procedures?

As always, the money issue looms largest. The €80 billion requested by the Commission for Horizon 2020 is a lot of money. Yet it falls far short of the kind of realignment in funding priorities that Europe’s political leaders say they want. The hope, at one stage, was that the EU would move steadily from spending aimed at cleaning up past legacies, such as farm subsidies and structural support for disadvantaged regions, to building up a competitiveness edge for the future.

The €80bn Commission proposal falls well short of that. Parliament has said as much, suggesting €100bn instead. Yet it is the Council of Ministers, representing the member states, that calls the fiscal tune and it is eyeing a Horizon 2020 budget of around €70bn, or possibly less.

On closer examination, the funding outlook deteriorates further. Last week, one prominent university lobbyist suggested that a staggering €15bn of a €70bn Horizon 2020 budget could be diverted to support major infrastructure projects, such as the Iter fusion reactor being built in France. That would leave Horizon 2020 with less money than Framework 7’s €49bn, in real terms—and far less annually than the €10bn plus that Framework 7 will dispense in this, its final, year.

So researchers urged by cash-strapped national governments to turn their attention towards expanding EU research programmes are going to end up disappointed.

They may also end up let down by the outcome of the Commission’s drive to simplify application and funding rules, which are being disputed by the European Parliament. It remains to be seen whether the three-way negotiations to resolve this and other Horizon 2020 details will actually result in the visible simplification of Commission processes that everyone claims to want.

That might not be as bad as it sounds, since most organisations now know the rules of EU programmes. Their reputation for opaqueness is more a legacy of the past than a real reflection of how today’s EU funding rules compare with the tight rules exercised by most national funding bodies.

Research and innovation commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn had been hoping that Horizon 2020 would mark a fresh, clean break from Frameworks 1 to 7. Well, the name seems to have stuck. But what we’re getting looks increasingly like Framework 8, without a major expansion in funding and with many rules and instruments in place primarily because of past practice, rather than today’s needs.