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Will greater targeting of funding endanger our R&I ecosystem?

With an eye on FP10, Karin Sipido examines the trend towards strategic funding in previous EU programmes. With lessons learnt from the field of health research, she asks how EU R&I funding can best tackle major societal challenges.

Consecutive policies for research funding under the EU’s framework programmes for R&I have had a strong economic perspective, towards growth and jobs. Yet, more recently, societal challenges such as climate change, demographic change and health have come to the fore as major drivers for strategic funding. This emphasis has further increased expectations for funded research to lead to innovation and the implementation of knowledge, as a fast track towards tangible solutions and societal impact. This evolution raises the question of whether more targeted strategic funding puts exploratory and opportunity-driven research at risk, disturbing the ecosystem of research and innovation.

The EU is not unique in this trend towards strategic funding. The early model of scientist-driven, bottom-up funding, based on excellence and opportunities, was initiated in the United States in the 1950’s. This was subsequently extended with instruments for innovation-oriented research and, more recently, with the results-oriented model exemplified by the mission approach. Taking health as a prime example of a societal challenge, we performed an analysis of EU-funded projects under the framework programmes (FP) FP7 and Horizon 2020, in comparison with projects funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the same period. The data indicate that both funders have extended support for research in advanced stages towards innovation for health care and management.

However, this comparison also illustrates differences in the approach of both funders, as well as how they balance bottom-up and results-oriented funding. Within the EU, funding for health is predominantly directed through a dedicated channel for collaborative research, with prescriptive calls addressing different health challenges. Between the conclusion of FP7 in 2013 and Horizon Europe’s kick-off in 2021, basic biomedical research within this channel dwindled, a trend that has persisted in Horizon Europe. Since FP7, the EU has also funded bottom-up discovery research through the European Research Council (ERC), which has continued its funding of basic biomedical research. In contrast, NIH funding for collaborative research has maintained a mix of early biomedical research and advanced health care research in its long-standing instruments, but new instruments focus exclusively on advanced stage research, notably addressing infectious disease.

Private investment in the late stages of R&I, especially from the pharmaceutical sector, adds another dimension to how health needs act as a driver. EU research programmes have led in setting up public-private partnerships for accelerating R&I towards innovation in health through the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). Such funding, a mix of public (EU) and private (pharmaceutical) investment, supports research addressing defined health problems through dedicated calls, with jointly chosen topics. Now, the new Innovative Health Initiatives (IHI) are extending this approach beyond the pharmaceutical industry to medical technologies.

In a funding environment where health needs are a driver for investment, mechanisms that define and prioritise these needs are essential. So, how do we select which areas to invest in? Relatively few studies have examined this process. Within the EU’s programmes, the European Commission is responsible for strategic planning, using consultations with the public and dedicated committees.

Health care needs as drivers for innovation was the topic of a conference under Belgium’s 2024 Presidency of the Council of the EU. The event included a panel discussion on the necessary research investment, which opened with the presentation of a study, commissioned by the Dutch government, on the role of the pharmaceutical sector in the R&I ecosystem. The report illustrated some dramatic gaps between health needs as defined by burden of disease and pharmaceutical market introductions, e.g. in the case of cardiovascular diseases. Such a gap has previously been reported in an analysis of scientific publication outputs in relation to burden of disease, with scientific publications largely reflecting public funding. These data suggest that research policies that consider health needs should develop the necessary steering and evaluation mechanisms and examine the complete funding environment, cross-sector and not only at EU level.

Indeed, EU funding is essential in the larger portfolio of public funding for research in Europe because of its unique potential to support cross-border collaborative research, creating international critical mass, interdisciplinary expertise and cross-sector exchange. Nevertheless, within the portfolio of public funding, national agencies still represent the largest financial source, accounting for some 80-90% of all funding. Bottom-up ideas and selection based on scientific excellence remain the pillars of national public funding. Yet, there is also a trend at national level towards more targeted funding, e.g. through specific calls or dedicated research centres, alongside a growing expectation to demonstrate societal impact at all levels of research.

In conclusion, while funding for bottom-up, scientist-driven research may not (yet) be at risk, policy makers should remain attentive and support the emergence and development of new ideas, whether or not they present an immediate window for real-world translation or innovation. The importance of EU funding for cross-border collaborative research demands that EU policies pay attention to maintaining the entire R&I ecosystem, as the only road to address societal challenges.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Karin Sipido

Karin R. Sipido is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Cardiovascular Sciences at KU Leuven, Belgium, and was a member the EUA task and finish group, which guided the formulation of EUA’s vision for FP10 ‘Paving the way for impactful European R&I’.

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