The year 2018 has been particularly intense for the European research and innovation community. Since the release of the Commission proposal establishing the next EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation - Horizon Europe, several milestones have been reached in the legislative procedure heading to the forecasted programme launch in 2021.
After six months of discussions and consultations, on 12 December 2018 the European Parliament adopted - with an overwhelming majority - its amended text, shortly following the compromise text agreed by the Council research ministries on 30 November.
The trilogues ahead will aim at solving several controversies among the Parliament’s and Council’s positions, the major one being a programme budget increase from EUR 94.1 billion - as proposed by the Commission and backed by some Member States - to EUR 120 billion as agreed by the European Parliament. MEPs and Member State representatives will also have to agree on modalities to widen participation in the programme. Although the current discussion is mainly focused on the cleavage that sees the excellence principle as opposed to the provision of a dedicated financial support to lower income countries, additional ways to tackle the problem should be further explored in forthcoming discussions.
EUA has long addressed the issue of low participation rates in Horizon 2020 as a problem to be tackled from different angles, for instance by increasing synergies among EU-funded programmes to finance excellent but unsuccessful Horizon 2020 proposals. Simplification of the project application, implementation and auditing phases also play an important role in increasing participation in the programme. Namely, simplification measures should be designed to meet the needs of varied participants’ profiles rather than following a one-size-fits-all approach.
For instance, accepting beneficiaries’ accounting practices under Horizon Europe has the potential to make a more efficient use of project resources, reduce error rates and improve cross-reliance between national and EU audits. EUA conducted two broad consultations with its members on this topic on the occasion of the Horizon 2020 mid-term review and to investigate the effects of specific simplification measures introduced in 2017. The information gathered was enriched by the work of an expert group of university practitioners who shared practical information on accounting practices applied to the management of nationally-funded research projects. The practices are collected in a compendium, where they are also compared to current Horizon 2020 rules in an exploration of new possibilities for a better alignment of rules between the EU and the national level in Horizon Europe.
EUA was consulted by EU institutions regarding the results of this unique work on the simplification of the Framework Programme in both the phases preceding and following the launch of the Commission proposal establishing Horizon Europe. The association was also pleased to learn that the European Court of Auditors (ECA) agreed upon and embraced several of EUA’s recommendations for a simpler Horizon Europe in the framework of its Horizon 2020 performance audit.
The ECA’s special report published in November 2018 rightly points out the need to further reduce red tape in the programme. This could be achieved by: addressing communications issues between the Commission and beneficiaries; further testing simplified cost options; improving the quality of externally conducted audits; and increasing the recognition of the Seal of Excellence to fund high-quality proposals. EUA particularly welcomed ECA’s recommendation aimed at preserving stability of Horizon 2020 rules. The recommendation combines a minimal level of adjustment of the current rules and a wider acceptance of usual cost accounting practices (notably for personnel costs) as a solution for significantly simplifying reporting rules and reducing error rates.
As more detailed rules for participation in the programme will be discussed at a later stage in the process, EU policy makers have enough room to further explore possibilities to rely increasingly on the accounting practices developed by the university sector in a number of European countries. Several examples of rules developed by national competitive research programme funders would be helpful to design a system at the EU level. Moreover, improving the alignment of funders’ practices for both accounting and auditing purposes between the national and the EU level would be a major, further step towards achieving this objective.