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Earma 2022: Does the EU expect too much of research?


How R&D serves policy goals needs more thought, say Doris Alexander and Dipti Pandya

Trying to keep abreast of EU policy can be overwhelming. The Commission’s priorities for 2019-24 include the European green deal, a digital future, an economy that works for people, and promoting and strengthening both Europe in the world and European democracy. These underpin a vast array of policy goals and strategies—from net-zero to digital transformation—against a backdrop of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Research and innovation are at the heart of EU strategy to tackle challenges across these policy areas. Relevance to EU policy goals is a key criterion of funding from the bloc’s Horizon Europe R&D programme, which is expected to deliver policies for creating the European Research Area, such as open science and citizen science. 

Winning EU funding and running research projects requires researchers to understand EU policy and how their work relates to it. In our experience, however, researchers often have little awareness or appreciation of these policy goals. The gap between what researchers want to do and what the EU says it wants, at both overarching and niche policy levels, risks reducing efforts at aligning research with policy to a tick-box exercise. 

At the 2022 conference of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (Earma), we want to ask how Horizon Europe can meaningfully deliver across so many policies and strategies. Is such a goal at odds with the simplification that stakeholders and the Commission have worked so hard to develop? What is the optimal balance between research and policy objectives? Does the demand for policy relevance risk alienating researchers and innovators, particularly the new entrants the Commission says it wants to encourage?

To quote an Earma working paper from January, some funding calls have “too many objectives and requirements…resulting in projects becoming overly complex”. With investment priorities being set for 2024-27, now a good time for reflection.

Research managers can play a key role in helping researchers link their work to policy, including developing the skills needed for open science and other cultural changes. This matches action 17 of the 2021 ERA Policy Agenda: Enhance the strategic capacity of Europe’s public research performing organisations.   

There may also be an argument for changing how research consortia work. Can call texts provide context without expecting researchers and innovators to become policy experts? Could project officers, who can better bridge policy and research, have a stronger role in mapping the project to the policy? Investing more in support staff who can understand the policy value created by a project may be more efficient than over-engineering the requirement for researchers to make the link to policy.

Transformational research and innovation needs the support of innovative and transformational thinking. The Commission is working to join up its thinking across policy areas, such as decarbonisation and the digital transition. The research and innovation investment strategies of the EU and member states need to be similarly connected.

Money is an issue. Horizon Europe is being loaded with more and more worthy elements, such as missions, partnerships, global challenges and innovation pathways. But despite being a lynchpin for delivering in many policy areas, the programme has proven a soft target for cuts. Its budget of €95.5 billion for seven years fails to match its ambition.  

How research funding should serve policy is also an open question. In the face of rapidly changing societal needs, the best option might be more bottom-up funding, trusting researchers to provide relevant knowledge, rather than trying to second-guess the next crisis or deliver policies that may themselves need updating.  

Tackling Covid has shown that success is built on strong foundations of basic research, combined with the ability to pivot quickly in an emergency, breaking down silos between national and EU levels. What could be achieved if this approach was taken across other societal challenges and policy areas? 

The missions in Horizon Europe are often compared to the Apollo moon landings. That earlier project showed that ambition in R&D needs knowledge, commitment and a healthy level of risk. Without this, Horizon Europe’s power to deliver the future the EU and its people want is unlikely to be fully realised. We don’t know the optimal balance of these elements, but the panel session at the Earma conference can help get the discussion going. 

The authors will be speaking on this topic at the Earma conference 2022, taking place 4-6 May in Oslo. Research Professional News is media partner for the event. Follow our coverage online. 

Doris Alexander is associate director of European engagement at Trinity College Dublin. Dipti Pandya is senior manager for research programmes at University College Dublin

This article also appeared in Research Europe