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Three must-haves for the next framework programme

Image: sanjeri, via Getty Images

Research funding needs stability, balance and heft to meet Europe’s strategic goals, says Kamila Kozirog

As Europe endeavours to secure its future prosperity, the pivotal role of the EU framework programmes for research and innovation cannot be overstated. 

The programmes stand out for their unparalleled support for excellent R&I projects, fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange between sectors and disciplines across the EU and beyond. Their unique strength lies in surpassing the capabilities of individual member states, allowing researchers and innovators to address challenges that are increasingly international. 

The first results of the interim evaluation of Horizon Europe, the current programme, showed that a significant number of projects would simply not have happened without EU support. Despite this, the future of the programmes is uncertain.

Emerging geopolitical challenges have accentuated the urgency of reducing Europe’s dependencies in strategic technologies, most notably prompting increased support for defence technologies. Simultaneously, other emerging ambitions, such as the EU’s push for reindustrialisation, are gaining prominence in policy discussions. These factors are putting pressure on the EU budget, raising questions about the future funding and prioritisation of R&I.

Alongside these concerns, the programme budget is being frequently redirected to new priorities prompted by emerging challenges or shifting political landscapes. This was recently seen with the repurposing of Horizon Europe funding to support the European Chips Act, the EU Space Strategy for Security and Defence and the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform. This reallocation has not only diluted Horizon Europe’s original objectives but has also introduced unpredictability for potential beneficiaries, possibly affecting its overall impact.

Funding imbalance

As successive framework programmes have evolved, there has been a growing trend towards funding projects that focus on quick and marketable results. This has led to an overemphasis on applied R&I, to the detriment of basic, curiosity-driven research. 

This imbalance hampers Europe’s ability to address new and unforeseen challenges, especially in the long run.  

It comes against the backdrop of an increasingly competitive global R&I landscape. The latest data from the OECD show that Europe, despite increasing its R&I investments over the past two decades, is not keeping pace with its major competitors, particularly the US and China. These countries have not only increased R&I spending but have also recognised the fundamental role of basic research in boosting their global competitiveness. 

China is one of many nations boosting spending to make up for historical weaknesses in basic research. Increased investment in basic research forms part of its current five-year plan, and the country has a long-term action plan specifically for basic research, underlining its significance in the development of breakthrough innovations.

Future prosperity

On 8 April, the European University Association published its vision for Framework Programme 10, which is set to begin in 2028. This outlines the key conditions for putting the programme back on a path that enables it to contribute effectively to Europe’s future prosperity. 

First and foremost, FP10’s budget must be ringfenced. Many excellent proposals already go unfunded, making it even more vital to stay true to the intended focus. Protecting research funding from other priorities will provide a stability that will keep the programme attractive to researchers and innovators. 

Second, a more balanced approach to funding basic research, applied research and innovation is essential. Public investment in applied R&I should not overshadow investments in basic research. Striking this balance is a strategic move to ensure Europe will be able to tackle current and future challenges and crises.

Third, for Europe to become a global R&I leader, particularly in strategic sectors, FP10 needs a bigger budget than Horizon Europe. As well as affirming Europe’s position at the forefront of global R&I, this would leverage private sector investment, which currently trails that of our main global competitors. Ensuring adequate national commitments to reach the EU’s target of spending 3 per cent of GDP on R&I remains equally important.

As Europe prepares for FP10, these recommendations offer a roadmap to sustain the programme’s place as a cornerstone of European scientific advancement and innovation. By embracing them, the continent can reinforce its standing in the global arena, address societal challenges and foster its future prosperity. 

Kamila Kozirog is a policy analyst at the European University Association

This article also appeared in Research Europe