One day before the last parliament dissolved, on 17 April, negotiators signed off on the general outlines of the union’s next giant research programme, known as Horizon Europe, which runs from 2021 to 2027. The EU’s much sought after multi-year research programmes support academic and commercial research across its 28 member states and other countries that pay to join in. They set the agenda for science across the bloc and give rise to major initiatives: in the current version of the fund, called Horizon 2020, these have included €1-billion projects on brain science and quantum technologies.
The successful negotiations, which took only four months, have given some comfort to researchers and science leaders who are worried about the results of the EU parliamentary elections being held this week. The last election was in 2014, before the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU and before the sharp rise in support for populist parties in Poland, Italy and other EU countries. The EU devotes more than 8% of its trillion-euro, 7-year budget (2014–20) to its research programme, and some bureaucrats speculate that shifting political winds might alter the union’s appetite for spending so much on science in the future. “Europe is not the same as it was during the last election. Thank God we managed at least to get the partial agreement so early,” says one insider.
Plenty remains up for grabs with Horizon Europe. The new parliament could shrink its provisional budget — currently proposed at around €107 billion, which includes a €13 billion fund for defence-related research. It could reapportion funding within this programme. And it might stymie the hopes of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, to further open up Horizon Europe to distant non-EU partners, such as Canada or South Korea, and to the United Kingdom after Brexit.
The EU funds other research-related activities, including a proposed €16-billion space programme, to be overseen by a new EU agency in Prague — which might also see changes with budget negotiations. And later this year, the parliament, together with the heads of member states, will appoint new leaders for the commission’s departments, including its research directorate.
Even if politicians don’t fiddle with future budgets for research or shift the EU’s science vision, geopolitical tensions could intensify perennial debates around how the bloc can commit to supporting only the best research while tackling inequality. The member states that joined the EU after 2004 gain less (per capita) from its research-funding programme than do richer members such as Germany and France, although the EU helps out poorer newcomers with other funds for science infrastructure.
However this month’s elections pan out, arguments over the size and scope of the next research framework programme are sure to shape the future of EU science. “Horizon 2020 has a well-deserved international reputation. There’s nothing else quite like it, and any individual country would struggle to replicate it,” says Paul Nurse, a Nobel-prizewinning geneticist who heads the Francis Crick Institute in London. “If the UK is to remain a serious scientific player after Brexit, we need to be a part of Horizon Europe,” he says.
Europe’s collaboration engine
Why is Horizon Europe so important? It will be the ninth instalment of the EU’s series of broad-ranging research programmes, which began in 1984. A unique aspect of these funding schemes is that, to achieve political objectives such as spurring the economy or improving the health and well-being of citizens, they insist on large collaborations that work across borders. “No other research system in the world operates this way,” says mouse geneticist Nadia Rosenthal, science director at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, who took part in EU research consortia when she worked at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Rome. Because the EU sets out its overall budget in multi-year chunks, the finances of the framework programme are also relatively stable.
On average, the research programmes and other EU research funds account for around 10–15% of what the 28 EU member governments spend in total on research and development (R&D) each year. (The programmes have an even greater influence in spurring research than these figures suggest, because in many cases the EU requires participants to match its funds with their own spending.)
Early programmes focused their funding almost exclusively on industrial and cross-border collaborations, but each successive one has grown larger and extended its repertoire (see ‘Rising research cash’). A cross-border programme of Marie Curie research training fellowships, now known as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, was added to the fourth framework programme in 1994; the prestigious European Research Council (ERC), which awards large grants to outstanding individual scientists, launched with the seventh programme in 2007. The ongoing eighth programme, Horizon 2020, added the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, a series of large-scale European partnerships addressing specific global challenges. A new element of Horizon Europe will be the European Innovation Council, a funding scheme designed to support entrepreneurs launching start-up firms and researchers developing commercially innovative ideas.
All pull together
The mainstay of the EU’s research programmes are multinational academic-industrial collaborations, which comprise almost half the suggested Horizon Europe budget and cover areas such as health, climate, the digital economy, security and food. Politicians love these collaborations, but scientists tend to be ambivalent: they are a welcome source of money, but their bureaucracy can be tortuous. The application process is complicated, says biomedical researcher Seppo Ylä-Herttuala at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, who since 1995 has been involved in nearly a dozen such collaborations to develop gene therapy for cardiovascular disease. “You need courage and experience,” he says. His current consortium in Horizon 2020 is now running a clinical trial. Because Finland is small and sits on the geographical edge of the EU, Ylä-Herttuala says, it wouldn’t have been possible for him to recruit the number of patients the trial needs without the wider geographical reach of the EU consortium.
The collaboration programmes are heavily oversubscribed. The overall success rate of applicants to collaborations in the first half of Horizon 2020 was just 12.6%, and reviewers rated one-third of the rejected applications as worthy of funding, the commission has reported. (The success rate has now dropped to 12%.) The ERC is similarly overwhelmed with keen applicants, and has just as low success rates. Horizon Europe’s larger budget is an effort to address the problem.
Although Horizon 2020 is still running, the EU counts it as a success so far; an interim evaluation released in 2017 found that the programme has had a pronounced impact. According to projections made by macro-economic models, it will generate more than €400 billion in economic gains by 2030. And more than four-fifths of projects funded through Horizon 2020 wouldn’t have gone ahead without the EU cash, the evaluation found. But the reviewers said that not enough was being spent on sustainable development and climate-related research — and that the programme has not reached young, fast-growing companies and innovators working on breakthrough technologies. The new European Innovation Council is intended to help with this.
Some other changes will also come with the new programme. In Horizon 2020, the commission launched three ‘flagship’ programmes, in which single consortia were promised €1 billion each over a decade to focus on, respectively, the brain, graphene and quantum technologies. The flagship idea has now been abandoned, although the three under way will continue, and concepts that were being developed for new ones will find homes in other parts of the Horizon Europe programme, says Robert-Jan Smits. He helped to design the original Horizon Europe proposal as the commission’s director-general for research, a post he left in March to become president of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. The big new idea in the programme is for ‘missions’: heavily financed collaborations intended to have a measurable impact in areas relevant to a significant proportion of the EU population. Rather than focus on single consortia as flagships did, such missions would put out calls for proposals and pick a constellation of winning bids. In a 3-year testing phase, up to 10% of Horizon Europe’s budget will concentrate on a handful of missions. Five proposed areas written into April’s agreement are climate change; cancer; oceans and other waters; smart cities; and soil and food.