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Shooting for the moon

Crafting EU research missions that tick all the desired boxes will be a tricky task, says Craig Nicholson.

In speech after speech the EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas has quoted a story about United States president John F Kennedy visiting a space centre during the Apollo programme. Kennedy asked a janitor what he was doing and was told: “Mr president, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

“That’s the kind of purpose I’m referring to. That sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” Moedas told the Next Generation Internet Summit in 2017, for example. “Let’s make European research and innovation inspirational.”

His point is that the EU’s own impending moonshots—the missions being introduced to the 2021-27 R&D programme, Horizon Europe—should increase not only the scientific and economic impact of the programme, but also its social impact. Citizens should be spurred to innovative endeavours of their own, feel better about stumping up taxes for EU R&D funding and be more positive about the EU in general.

R&D can capture the public imagination, the Commission thinks. But it will take something new. Former Commission R&D chief Robert-Jan Smits said earlier this year that one of his biggest regrets from his eight years in the role was that “it was very difficult to get the press coverage of the amazing success stories we had under the EU Framework programme”.

The missions, it is hoped, can change that. But will they?

First, consider what the missions might tackle. EU politicians agreed on the overarching design of Horizon Europe in March, including five mission areas: adaptation to climate change, cancer, healthy waters, climate-neutral and smart cities, and soil health and food.

These are among the most pressing issues of our time. But they are unlikely to inspire the rapt attention and historic awe that accompanied the moon landings. Soil quality and food security are vital, but lack the emotional impact of setting a human footprint among the heavens.

Another contrast with the moon landings is that the EU missions all revolve around solving problems rather than creating opportunities. Each seeks to restore a former, happier state of individual, environmental or societal health, not open up new vistas for exploration.

Then there is the question of money. Missions will receive up to 10 per cent of the annual budget of Horizon Europe’s funding stream for global challenges and industrial competitiveness for the programme’s first three years. If things go well, that can go up.

Assuming that Horizon Europe’s final budget is roughly the same as the Commission’s proposal, that will give the missions about €750 million per year to begin with. There will not necessarily be one mission for each of the five areas; assuming three are chosen, for example, gives a budget of about €250m per mission per year.

To put that into context, between 1961 and 1972 the Apollo programme was calculated to have cost $25.4 billion (€22.5bn). That is about $145bn in today’s money.

In 2018 the Commission said that the EU needs about €180bn extra investment per year to meet the (inadequate) climate change targets set out in the 2015 Paris agreement. Just one charity, Cancer Research UK, spent £423m (€492m) on R&D in the 2017-18 financial year.

To quote Doris Alexander, research development manager at Trinity College Dublin, speaking at the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators annual conference in March, this apparent lack of financial ambition for the missions raises the question of whether the missions are really moonshots or “just a long-haul flight”.

None of this makes missions a bad idea. There is good reason to think they will be a valuable addition to the EU’s mix of R&D funding instruments. Mariana Mazzucato, the University College London economist and Commission adviser, said in a 2018 report that missions can spur collaboration and public investment, and there is no reason to doubt this.

But choosing missions that capture the public imagination while also delivering scientific, economic and other forms of impact is a big ask, with no small risk of failure.

The Commission will appoint boards of experts for each mission area to advise on the identification and design of the missions and project portfolios to achieve them. Much will depend on who these experts are, how well they understand the brief and work together, and whether the EU politicians put in place after the European elections in May are as committed to the missions idea as those who gave it the green light.

The missions rocket is fuelled and on the launchpad. The question now is: where will it land?

 Craig Nicholson is news editor of Research Europe

This article also appeared in Research Europe