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This is what Horizon Europe’s successor should look like

An uncertain future demands a strong commitment to research, say Kurt Deketelaere and Jan Palmowski

Horizon Europe’s successor, the 10th EU framework programme in research and innovation, will start in 2028. By then, the war in Ukraine will hopefully be over, but at what cost? Emmanuel Macron will no longer be France’s president, but with what consequences? And the technological competition between the EU, China and the US will have intensified, but to what degree? 

These uncertainties reinforce a fundamental point: only an EU that invests in its future, in research and innovation, can hope to be futureproof.

The EU’s closest competitors invest more in research and innovation than it does. Between 2010 and 2020, gross domestic expenditure on R&D rose by 49.3 per cent in the US, 87 per cent in South Korea and 171 per cent in China. In Europe, it rose by only 27.6 per cent. At this rate, Europe’s science and technology will be made in China and the US.

But, in the framework programme, Europe has one asset without equal anywhere in the world. EU funding cannot make up for national underinvestment, but it can go a long way in ensuring Europe’s researchers are among the best, and in getting the best researchers to stay in Europe.

To do this, framework 10 must be well funded, strategic and focused on excellence. 

Ambition: Over the past five years, the EU has set itself up to lead the world in digital and green transitions, and to become more autonomous in key areas of the economy. This requires the power of European research. We have the scientific capacities to deliver—but not the budgets.

Funding: There is plenty of money in the EU budget, if it is invested wisely. That means scaling up the battle against health challenges such as cancer and mental illness. It means investing more in solving environmental challenges. And it means not underinvesting in digital research, to name but three examples.

To achieve this, framework 10 needs a budget of at least €200 billion—twice the amount allocated to Horizon Europe. Any less, and the EU’s primary political ambitions will be built on sand. This money must also be ring-fenced so that it cannot be raided to fund politically driven initiatives for which it was not created.

Strategy: The European Com-mission must stop prioritising close-to-market research over basic research. A truly strategic approach invests in the entire R&D pipeline in a balanced way and maximises the connectivities between collaborative research at all technology readiness levels and innovation.

That is why China and the US have been increasing their share of public R&D funding on basic research. Unfortunately, the Commission’s instincts tend the other way, with the Chips Act and the Net Zero Industry Act intensifying the focus on applied research. Framework 10 must maximise its strategic value by investing in breakthrough and frontier research.

Effectiveness: Investment must target proven successes. That means support for excellent science, or pillar one of the programme. Work funded by the European Research Council has among the highest scientific impact worldwide, and has resulted in more than 2,200 intellectual property applications. Consider the economic and societal impact of Europe’s two leading Covid-19 vaccines, developed with the critical support of the ERC.

Also proven in this area are the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which act as a boot camp for Europe’s next generation of outstanding scientists. Ambitions for framework 10 must start with these two successful—and globally envied—instruments.

Pillar two, covering global challenges and industrial compet-itiveness, needs greater clarity for researchers and an improved focus on research activities, including basic research. This pillar has come to include an ever-growing variety of instruments, and the scale and complexity of its calls has deterred many excellent researchers. The Commission has also launched other programmes to fund similar activities, such as EU4Health and Digital Europe.

Calls in framework 10 must be at a scale and clarity aimed at bringing the best researchers together, not driving them away.

Excellence: Framework 10 must set standards for research excellence. These standards must be defined by academic communities and based on scientific quality, not policy goals.

Similarly, partnerships, which take up about a quarter of Horizon Europe’s budget, must be transparent on the added value they bring through excellence in research and innovation. And universities, when they participate in framework 10, must do so through the excellence of their researchers and projects, and not through institutional strategies, such as in the context of European university alliances. 

Kurt Deketelaere is secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities. Jan Palmowski is secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

This article also appeared in Research Europe