The issues at stake for the continuation of the Horizon Europe negotiations

It took the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and the Council six months – between June and November 2018 – to develop their respective positions on the Commission’s proposal on the main elements of Horizon Europe. For all three EU institutions, this process has been a balancing act between competing objectives: inclusiveness and excellence, research and innovation, securing European interests and opening up to international collaboration. So, what are the issues at stake for the continuation of the Horizon Europe negotiations?

Excellence or inclusiveness?

Whilst the Parliament and the Council fully endorse the principle of excellence as the cornerstone of Horizon Europe, the question of how this can be squared with the ITRE Committee’s push to increase spending on research and innovation in EU13 countries is wide open.

One likely option is that spending on ‘Widening Participation’, a part of the budget reserved exclusively for the purpose of capacity-building in research and innovation in lower-performing regions, will be increased beyond the Commission’s proposed 1.8%. This is a well-justified way of addressing the participation gap without changing the excellence-based selection of projects that have been the carefully safeguarded principle of framework programmes. But Parliament’s ambition to further equalise researchers’ salaries across Europe looks much harder to achieve.

Ultimately, salaries are a national issue – in some cases salaries are strictly mandated by national governments. It is extremely difficult to see how Parliament’s ambition for ‘equal pay for equal work’ can be realised, though of course, it would be possible to increase the top-up funds that already exist for lower-performing countries.

The toughest negotiations will be around Parliament’s demand for increasing participation of EU13 countries as a main objective of the programme. Reducing the gap may be desirable for all sorts of reasons, but it cannot be a core objective: the objective must remain funding the best science and innovation, irrespective of where it comes from.

Questions of content

Both the Parliament and the Council have backed proposals to strengthen programmatic support for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (SSH). They proposed the creation of a separate cluster focusing on culture and society within the second challenge-led pillar, and called for mainstreaming SSH across the technologically-oriented clusters.

At the same time, there is a greater focus in Horizon Europe on new technologies and the application of results. The Commission has been clear that it is particularly concerned about boosting the EU’s capacity for innovation, as Europe lags behind the U.S. and Asia in translating new discoveries into innovative products. The second pillar thus focuses, to a significant extent, on enabling Europe to develop world-leading capacities in future technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and deep-tech. Moreover, the programme’s third pillar will lend significant support to innovation, with the European Innovation Council (EIC) and the European Institute of Technology (EIT).

The Commission’s drive to prioritise innovation has luckily been balanced with the Parliament and the Council’s explicit support for research at low technology readiness levels, which is urgently needed to guarantee opportunities for research collaboration and knowledge production in areas considered priorities for Europe. In short, the balance between fundamental research, applied research and innovation, will be a key issue during the trilogues.

Who decides?

A major innovation of the Commission’s Horizon Europe proposal lies in producing a more flexible framework for research and innovation that could be adjusted over the course of seven years. This means that beneficiaries can expect more political control over the research topics in the course of the programme. However, the strategic planning process would invite stakeholders and citizens in a process of co-creation together with decisionmakers to set strategic priorities for the second pillar. But this has raised difficult questions. An important concern has been the question of how citizens would be asked, and what the status of this input would be, as well as how it would relate to the input of governments and the Parliament.

Moreover, representatives of the science community – The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities included – have raised their concerns that the voice of scientists would get diluted even further, with potentially serious consequences for the scientific quality of a framework programme and its ability to address urgent research topics that rely on European collaboration.

Europe must act

It is hardly surprising that many of the most controversial issues of Horizon Europe concern those elements that are new, such as the remit of the European Innovation Council, Strategic Programming, or the nature of the Missions. And these substantive disagreements do not even take into account the budget – neither the overall budget for Horizon Europe nor how much will be spent on individual instruments: this will not be decided until the very end when the overall financial envelope of the EU budget has been agreed. Negotiations about these issues will be complicated by the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019, and the subsequent appointment of new commissioners. The arrival of new actors in Parliament and in the Commission, some of whom may have little experience in research and innovation, makes it imperative that as much progress as possible is made in negotiations about Horizon Europe by Easter. We need these negotiations to be successful for the sake of creating an internationally competitive framework programme for research and innovation that can truly respond to the societal challenges of our time. And policymakers need to demonstrate that Europe can act decisively, that the EU can make a positive difference to the everyday concerns of citizens.

This article was originally published by Open Access Government.

Published Jan. 2, 2019 2:31 PM - Last modified Jan. 2, 2019 2:31 PM