UCL European Institute


Horizon 2020 Launches! What Can We Expect?

07 January 2014, 12:00 am


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After many months of plans, news and social media chatter, the EU's new "Horizon 2020" programme for investing €70 billion* in science and innovation from 2014-2020, has launched. The first calls are now online and UCL plans to be at the forefront of participation.
Dr Michael Galsworthy
January 2014

Horizon 2020 represents a complete overhaul from the previous Framework Programmes. In this article, I describe what the European Commission has learned from its previous successes and failures and list the main lines of thinking for this new programme.

A bold unified vision with increased investment
There is a growing realisation that whilst financial markets are dangerous and cyclical, investment in science and innovation provides solid long-term return on a country's investment. The European Commission and Parliament have taken this message to heart and substantially increased science investment, even while the total EU budget is cut. Whereas during FP7 the total spend per annum averaged at €7.6bn, during Horizon 2020, this will surpass €10bn. This makes Horizon 2020 a major source of funding for each and every country within the EU*.

In Horizon 2020, all the previous lines of science and innovation funding (FP7, CIP & EIT) are pulled under one roof. Importantly, Horizon 2020 has a grand vision of what it aims to achieve, encapsulated in its "three pillars" which are: "excellent science", "industrial leadership" and "societal challenges". Stringing this into a sentence; the new EU vision is to preserve the excellent quality of science, whilst also harnessing that science engine to drive marketable innovation and solve pressing societal problems such as health, energy, transport and climate change.

Simplification for participants
The Commission is keen to widen its catch of would-be participants and so has developed a more friendly and helpful face. With one common portal to find grants, simpler online application and a dedicated help-desk, the look-and-feel of Horizon 2020 is a departure from the past.

But changes run deeper than the cosmetic. As the EC began consultations with a view to planning Horizon 2020, the universal feedback from all sectors was condemnation of the excessive grant management bureaucracy. A pain to everyone, it was also a major barrier to participation from small businesses and smaller research institutions that simply did not have the capacity to deal with the paperwork torture. Apparently, administration costs will now be slashed by 15-20% with no more time-sheets for those fully employed on EU grants. There will also be a simplified and universal reimbursement mechanism with 100% of direct project costs potentially funded, unlike in FP7 where the 70% funding rate meant that many entities had to weigh up whether they could afford to take part. Although this is all conceptually simpler, the litmus test will come in human interaction as project managers on Horizon 2020 projects wrestle with the interpretations of the rules; hoping for more trust, efficiency and help from the Commission and their auditors.

Another aspect of bureaucracy was sluggishness on the part of the EU as a grant-giver. The average "time-to-grant" (time from the close of call to getting the money) was 340 days under FP7. For Horizon 2020, a target has been set for 240 days (8 months). However, not all are impressed: A House of Lords report on EU Research and Innovation noted that the American R&I funder DARPA has a 150-180 day range. Eurochambres even suggested a 100-day target. Many will be keeping an eye on this.

Small business - academia partnerships
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for around 99% of all European firms by number, providing over two-thirds of all jobs in the private sector. Perhaps most interestingly, some 92% of those small businesses are "micro-enterprises", defined as those with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2 million. Although many of these will be family businesses with low growth, about one fifth will be in tech or innovative areas. Business start-ups are fragile entities in difficult territory - how can we help discover and support the innovation leaders of tomorrow?

The EU's solution is to target some 20% of the funds for small businesses, mostly in collaborative projects with academia. This achieves multiple purposes. It helps provide small innovative businesses with a potential nest, not just funds, but also stimulating partnerships that will help them uncover new niches. As far as universities are concerned, this is something of a game-changer that forces them to get business-wise and seek out small business partners. UCL is one university doing just that, partnering on a pan-European network (called "Vision 2020") of research institutions, industry and small business all collaborating to target Horizon 2020 funding. Cross-sector partnerships may be a bumpy ride initially for many naïve business and academic institutions and guidance may be needed as to how to successfully interact.

Breaking up the subject-area pigeonholes
Unlike in FP7, you may not find your specific subject-area pigeon-hole nicely delineated and budgeted in Horizon 2020. There are broad challenges that accept wide-ranging solutions. It is meant to be more fluid and stimulate creativity and lateral collaborations. However, this has raised concerns amongst some disciplines.

Within health, currently underfunded but critical areas (e.g. COPD) may find it hard to compete with very well-developed areas (e.g. Alzheimer's Disease) which have built up research "excellence" pedigree through sheer size. Another area fretting are the Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities (SSH). Under previous FPs, SSH has always had a separate pillar, but this is no longer the case. The EC say that these areas will be integrated into other challenge areas through multi-disciplinary calls, yet sceptics say that this is a policy move away from funding 'soft science' to more industrial/applied research. Either way, with this loosened funding structure, the Commission will have to categorise projects thoroughly and make the database of project open for analysis in a timely way to help everyone monitor and guard against run-away or neglected areas.

Driving up Eastern European competitiveness
Action in this area has been a late-comer. For a long while during FP7 the data were showing very low participation of Eastern European countries in the programme, with only 2.5% of all the health research funding going to the 12 newest member states. However, there was precious little commentary in Commission documents. Then global financial problems and austerity hit research hard, with Southern European countries also suffering. An added problem was that science salaries in these countries were low and in the FP7 international projects, the Commission was reimbursing researchers at their "local rate", which often meant a salary they could barely manage on.

As Horizon 2020 approached, two key things happened. Firstly, a new fund called "spreading excellence and widening participation" was established which will provide some €722 million as a key to help struggling regions increase their competitiveness and gain more access to the €70 billion R&I funding plus the big pot of structural funds that went unspent on research and innovation during the FP7 years. Secondly, all researchers on EU-funded international projects will now be able to claim a €8,000 annual bonus. Although that's not a permanent fix to EU scientists earning unequal rates for the equal work, nevertheless, the top-up will be an instant balm to many European scientists in poorer regions that are struggling with personal finances. The potential of Eastern Europe is large, and unlocking that potential could deliver a lot for Europe.

… And continued big international science
The major achievements of previous Framework Programmes were to foster international collaborations on research projects, provide mobility grants for young researchers around Europe and to begin to develop a common European science infrastructure. These aspects have clearly been a resounding success and will continue in full force during Horizon 2020. The ERC (European Research Council) which gives out prestigious "investigator-driven" "bottom-up" grants is also regarded as hugely successful and will receive a budget increase from €7.5 billion to €13 billion. Hopefully the new ingredients to be introduced during Horizon 2020 will help the programme capitalise on solid foundations and spill-over into Europe's innovative capacity and standard of living throughout the region. That's the vision, fingers are crossed.

(Thanks to Michael Browne, Head of UCL's European Research and Innovation Office, for helpful input to this piece)

*Note 1: The original plan was to invest €80bn in constant (2011) prices. This was then reduced to an agreed €70.2bn (you will also see €70.9bn/ €71bn cited) in constant (2011) prices. However, this finalised amount will ultimately become an estimated (more impressive sounding) €79bn in current prices including inflation over the next seven years. So if you hear varying amounts reported, this may help explain why. The official Horizon 2020 website, for example, now says "nearly €80 billion of funding available".

*Note 2: Associated countries such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland also contribute to the science budget in line with their GDP, just as full EU members do.