Evaluation of Horizon Europe will shape policy for decades, say Joep Roet and Gosse Vuijk
The expert group on the evaluation of Horizon Europe, announced in December, is in an enviable position. Unburdened by EU politics, its 15 members, chaired by former Portuguese science minister Manuel Heitor, can study every facet of the research and innovation programme. The group’s status will ensure its conclusions are heard.
The group has a pivotal role to play in directing the EU’s vast R&I resources and setting the priorities of Framework Programme 10, or FP10, which will succeed Horizon Europe in 2028 and run until 2035. This will determine whether the EU can prevail in a world driven by competition, not values.
The 2030s will be a crucial decade for decarbonisation, for example, because the technology needed for carbon neutrality by 2050 remains to be invented. Digitisation will be even less predictable, given that quantum computing and artificial intelligence are already changing our world.
The experts’ principal task is to address the programme’s flaws. In our view, three topics stand out: its purpose; its role in the wider funding landscape; and how to streamline its instruments so that all add value.
Engine for excellence
The first priority is that FP10 must be an engine of scientific excellence and technological leadership. This is both a practical imperative and enshrined in the EU’s founding treaties.
To achieve this, funding needs to be protected. The politically motivated diversion of EU research funds—to prop up the semiconductor industry, for example—does not help researchers and breeds cynicism about promises the European Commission cannot keep. As the largest uncommitted area of the EU budget, research funding is too often treated as a piggy bank by member states unwilling to appropriate national budgets.
Part of the picture
Second, the group must consider the wider funding landscape. Despite its modest budget—Horizon Europe accounts for just 6 per cent of European research spending—the framework programme’s power to promote cross-border collaboration and competition gives it an outsized role in strengthening the continent’s knowledge base and fostering the European Research Area.
For example, the stiff international competition for funding from the European Research Council and the European Innovation Council reveals quality. Cross-border consortia, meanwhile, encourage the circulation of researchers, knowledge and technology.
This dual engine is powered by openness. Viewed from any single country, most knowledge is developed elsewhere, making international collaboration essential. Openness also relies on academic freedom, which should be a precondition for every country participating in the framework programmes.
How and where resources are concentrated also matters. EU research funding has the potential to reward past success rather than future promise. This is amplified by fast-track procedures for grantees to receive follow-up funding.
At the same time, notoriously low success rates shut out many excellent researchers, who find no solace in poorly funded national programmes. This hampers projects, careers and the long-term development of good ideas.
The Commission has estimated that 71 per cent of high-quality proposals go unfunded. In the 2023 round of the cancer mission, this included a proposal scoring 15 points out of 15. If perfection is no longer enough, Horizon’s key objective is under threat. With this in mind, the group should make a realistic but ambitious proposal for FP10’s budget.
The third key issue is the architecture of EU R&D funding. Horizon Europe and the broader EU knowledge landscape have seen new instruments mushroom, including the European Innovation Council, missions, harmonised partnerships and, creeping in from Erasmus+, university alliances.
Streamlining is needed. The aim should be meaningful simplification, building a programme that is above all understandable and attractive to researchers.
The group should also consider Horizon’s role in supporting innovation ecosystems and how this differs from EU structural and cohesion funds. The regional turn in R&I is welcome—including European Research Area hubs, digital innovation hubs, partnerships for regional innovation, regional innovation schemes, regional innovation valleys and hydrogen valleys—but there is a risk of reinventing the wheel.
Today’s decisions will ripple through the decades, shaping Europe’s position in the world and its citizens’ future. The high-level group’s leadership is the key to a successful FP10—and to setting Europe on the right road.
Joep Roet is deputy director at the Netherlands house for Education and Research. Gosse Vuijk is head of parliamentary affairs for Christian Ehler MEP. This article presents their personal views.
This article also appeared in Research Europe