Members of the European Parliament have now adopted the Horizon Europe regulation, paving the way for preparations and implementation in time for 2021.
The parameters of the future programme are now known, and the university sector can begin to anticipate with a relative degree of certainty. However, what is not clear is the budget, which will determine if the ambitions for the future programme will be feasible.
This autumn, member states are expected to reach an agreement on the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027. Ambitions for EU research and innovation have never been higher, but the European Commission’s proposal of 94,1 billion euros falls short. The European Parliament quickly realised this and promoted the figure of 120 billion euros, the bare minimum to start addressing the ambitions assigned to the programme. On behalf of the academic community, EUA has been advocating, together with partner organisations, for a proper resourcing of EU’s flagship instrument for research and innovation. Fulfilling goals to establish Europe as a world technological leader and to tackle unparalleled challenges at the global level would require doubling the amount previously dedicated to Horizon 2020.
What will Horizon Europe look like?
Prior to the Parliament’s vote on 17 April, the EU Council and the European Parliament agreed on the three-pillar structure proposed by the Commission, supported by a transversal part aimed at addressing the under-representation of lower R&I performing member states. The institutions also agreed on five missions and eight partnership areas, which will be finalised by the Commission in the Strategic Planning.
Regarding the principles of Horizon Europe, EUA appreciates that its input on the need to ensure multidisciplinarity and guarantee the integration of social sciences and humanities (SSH) across all activities have been recognised as important cross-cutting priorities for Horizon Europe. The overall objectives of Horizon Europe require contributions from science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and SSH disciplines alike. EUA's vision is that SSH disciplines are seamlessly integrated across the whole programme to address scientific challenges.
EUA also gladly observes that its key recommendation to move towards more sophisticated models of impact analysis has been taken up through the introduction of impact pathways. In addition, EUA suggests developing indicators to capture the innovation possibilities and potential of research outcomes and to consider the impact of the generation of new knowledge in higher education programmes.
EUA also welcomes the involvement of stakeholders in the strategic planning and implementation of Horizon Europe. It is essential that the Commission engages in a structured dialogue and co-creation of the programme implementation with stakeholders, such as academia. EUA reiterates that the implementation of the programme should include advice provided by independent advisory groups of high-level experts. Without advisory groups and other forms of structured interaction, the programme could lose its close links with the latest developments in different disciplines. It is crucial that Horizon Europe fosters even more interaction with the main groups of beneficiaries, to guarantee its position at the forefront of research and innovation in Europe.
EUA is also pleased that missions will encourage broad engagement and active participation of various types of stakeholders. European universities have an essential role to play in achieving missions since they are highly-responsive to societal needs. Therefore, they should have a crucial role in defining and implementing missions. Attracting and developing human talent must also be an important ingredient in missions since the best and brightest young minds are needed to solve Europe’s present and future societal challenges. In this way, missions could strengthen societal cohesion and enlarge the European talent pool vis-à-vis global competitors.
As regards the European Innovation Council (EIC), EUA welcomes the initiative. In particular, the Pathfinder for advanced research is seen as a step in the right direction. In addition, EUA also considers that the role of the EIC should be wider and include exchange of personnel between industry and academia. The EIC should support existing initiatives on university campuses that offer opportunities for students to develop their innovative ideas with guidance from professors and entrepreneurs. For example, EIC Fellowships and Challenges could become important instruments in this regard.
On the matter of funding modalities and rules for participation, the Council and Parliament reaffirm, as recommended by EUA, the primacy of grants over other financial instruments in the programme. EUA welcomes the intentions of the co-legislators who have sought to integrate safeguards for further simplification and reduced burden for beneficiaries. They also open the door towards greater acceptance of the beneficiaries’ accounting practices when claiming costs for reimbursement.
A bone of contention has been the pay gap between researchers in different parts of the EU, with scientific staff based in lower R&I performing member states often receiving salaries much lower than their counterparts, for similar work. The deal addresses the issue by ringfencing a higher amount of the budget for the activities under “Widening participation and strengthening the European Research Area”. The Council and Parliament have also introduced a new mechanism that echoes one of EUA’s early proposals, made two years ago, about rewarding excellent consortia including partners from underrepresented countries. Under the new provisions, support would be available to “legal entities from low R&I performing Member States [to join] already selected collaborative projects in which legal entities from such Member States are not participating”.
As always, the devil lies in the details. On many occasions, the spirit of the legal text was lost in delegated acts, and restrictive interpretations prevailed over broader choice for beneficiaries. Particular attention will be given, in this context, to the model grant agreement, which will define more precisely the modalities of participation. EUA strongly calls for all actors, and most importantly the European Commission, to stay true to the word of the text and make simplification a reality for beneficiaries. At stake is not only the attractiveness of the programme, or even the success rates. It is about the overall efficiency of Horizon Europe management and value for money. Impactful simplification is the corollary to obtaining higher funds for R&I investment at European level.
Horizon Europe is our vehicle for excellent science at the European level. It will host missions and partnerships of global relevance and will seek to reinforce the EU’s innovation potential through the European Innovation Council. Expectations have never been greater. Now the time has come to deliver. EUA calls on member states and on the Parliament to step up to the challenge and match our collective ambitions – let’s invest and unlock the future.