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Unfinished business

Image: AHS Photography/Alex Schregardus, via Getty Images

The EU’s next R&D commissioner should focus on three vital areas, says Daniel Spichtinger

Mariya Gabriel’s sprawling European Commission portfolio, which included culture, education and youth along with research and innovation, was so broad that research was not even named in her initial job title in 2019. This breadth meant that she had to split her time between these areas and could not focus exclusively on research policy. 

While her broad remit helped to build synergies between programmes, her approach to research therefore lacked the ambition and clarity of her predecessor Carlos Moedas, who championed “open science, open innovation and open to the world”.

Rather than having a headline mission, Gabriel focused on developing existing initiatives, such as the relaunch of the European Research Area. She did launch the New European Innovation Agenda, but it is too early to say whether it will be a long-term success.

With Bulgarian politics prompting Gabriel’s departure, the rapidly evolving preparation for Horizon Europe’s successor programme leaves little time for research and innovation to remain in limbo. Whoever ultimately oversees EU policy in this area, whether it’s Commission vice-president Margrethe Vestager, who has inherited responsibility for innovation and research, or a more permanent replacement, needs to get three crucial things right.

Do less with more

The Horizon Europe R&D programme faces high expectations. Its strategic plan for 2025-27 provides numerous orientations, expected impacts, cross-cluster issues and intervention areas. These subgoals are served by a plethora of instruments—such as missions, European partnerships, the European Research Council and multiple innovation programmes. 

This creates a risk of Horizon Europe’s €95.5 billion budget being spread too thinly to achieve the promised impact across all its areas and instruments. To carry real punch, the next framework programme needs an increased budget and a tighter focus.

Before budget negotiations begin in earnest after 2024, the R&D commissioner must prepare the ground—including convincing the wider Commission and president Ursula von der Leyen that research is central to EU policies.

The sense that it is not is reinforced by the diversion of Horizon funding to other initiatives, such as the €75 million taken to support the new Chips Act. Or the constant struggle to retain funding left over at the end of one year for research in the coming year, instead of reimbursing it to member states. MEPs and the Council of the EU member states need to be told to keep their hands off the research kitty.

Carrots, not sticks 

Despite their low political profile, the Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe funding programmes give the union significant soft power. But like every other area of policy, they have been caught up in the tumult of international relations.

There are valid reasons to halt scientific cooperation in extreme cases such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the EU has also withheld Horizon association for comparatively minor transgressions. This is even more worrying when the countries excluded are friends and allies with excellent science bases, as in the case of Switzerland and the UK.

Gabriel’s successor must ensure that concepts such as technological sovereignty and strategic autonomy do not prevent the association of further countries outside the EU. Part of achieving this means prioritising agreement on Switzerland and the UK’s association to Horizon Europe.

In this context, it is not clear whether Gabriel had the clout to make the research community’s voice heard at the top level of EU policymaking. Hopefully her successor will be able to conclude this long and painful saga in a satisfactory manner. 

Legislate, don’t hesitate

Except for the Horizon regulation, the Commission’s directorate-general for research and innovation seems reluctant to propose legislation, even when there is a clear need.

For example, in the area of open science, the Swedish presidency has proposed that immediate open access to scholarly publications “should be the default”. Achieving this across the member states would require EU legislation, such as a right for secondary use. 

Similarly, more stringent measures are needed if member states are to reach the decades-old goal of spending 3 per cent of their GDP on R&D. EU funding alone cannot resolve the significant disparities between member states. The Commission should therefore insist that EU funds for boosting lagging research systems only go to countries that show matching action at the national level. 

Daniel Spichtinger is an independent EU research policy specialist who formerly worked at the European Commission

This article also appeared in Research Europe