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Looking forward

Last week, on the streets of Bologna­—the city hosting the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators annual conference—students could be seen wearing laurel wreaths; a symbol of graduation and, historically, of triumph.

Down the road at the Earma conference centre, the mood may not exactly have been triumphant—a steady stream of Brexit news ensured that—but there was an underlying sense of hope, fuelled by last month’s agreement on the EU’s 2021-27 R&D programme.

The partial political agreement on Horizon Europe, reached on 20 March, has given researchers clarity over the topics for the programme’s themed missions, and eased fears that increased involvement of researchers in low-participation countries could come at the expense of excellent research. Just as significantly, it has also silenced very real concerns over whether this stage could be reached before May’s European parliamentary elections; and in doing so banished the spectre of damaging delays to implementation. 

Crucial questions, of course, remain; not least over the programme’s budget. To achieve everything Horizon Europe sets out to, researchers will clearly hope for a sum as close as possible to the €135 billion recommended by the Parliament. Despite the Framework’s scale, there is always a risk of money being spread too thinly; one Earma delegate questioned whether, with the budget for missions capped at 10 per cent of the programme’s global challenges and industrial competitiveness budget for its first three years, it might, if not careful, end up funding not moonshots but a “long-haul flight”. Academics are also concerned about how much influence they will have over the direction of the funding, after the Commission revealed it would not be consulting dedicated advisory groups of researchers as it has in the past.

Equally, there are murmurings within the Commission over the long-term effectiveness of its evaluation processes: an official told conference delegates that it is considering “radically changing” how impact is evaluated in the future. But for now, it will be more evolution than revolution.

Despite these issues, Horizon Europe has a sense of momentum, which could have been scuppered without the deal.

Similarly, there is a sense of momentum behind another unsurprisingly dominant topic in Bologna: the shake-up of the academic publishing system. Plan S does not, yet, have all the solutions to the “crisis” in publishing painted by panellists at a Question Time session held by Research Europe’s publisher Research Professional. But again, the debate around the controversial open-access initiative is born from a sense that solutions lie almost in sight. Achieving open access may be difficult, but it might not be intractable.

The one debacle seemingly no closer to resolution is, of course, Brexit. As the UK scrabbles to find any sort of consensus, researchers brace for impact. But there is comfort in the fact that, amid that fiasco, R&D policymakers are not resting on their laurels. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe