Friday, 22 June 2012

H2020: Is Europe's Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

I attended the Research Europe Conference 2012 yesterday, which focused on the forthcoming Framework Programme, Horizon 2020. They'd rustled up an impressive roster of speakers, kicking off with the European research funding queen bee, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science.

She gave a confident and robust overview of the forthcoming framework programme. The Commission had become more open, and H2020 was the result of an extensive consultation. 'This is your programme', she asserted, whether you are a scientist, an entrepreneur, or a businessman, working for an SME or a multinational. It was intended to be enabling and inclusive, slashing red tape, and allowing 'more time in the lab, less on administration.'

At its heart was simplification. The complex structures of past frameworks had been boiled down to three pillars: support for excellent research, support for industrial leadership, and support for societal challenges. By keeping it simple, it was hoped that the best people would be encouraged to engage with Europe, including those who hadn't been involved before, or who were 'small players'. They would be willing to take risks, and decision making would be speedier. However, writ through the programme was excellence, and this would inform all that they did. In difficult economic times it was the countries that had invested in research and development that succeeded. Europe needed to grasp this nettle and accept this challenge.

Brave words, and she left the hall with a David Steel-esque rallying cry to return to your constituencies and prepare for – um – involvement. No sooner had she left the stage than Banquo entered in the shape of Chris Hull, Secretary General of EARTO, cooling the delegates ardour somewhat by highlighting the shortcomings of the plans.

He reminded the hall that, despite all the fanfare around the inclusion of 'innovation' in H2020, this had been the case before, and it hadn't been a great success. The Commission needed to look to the past and learn the lessons if it was to avoid repeating them. Whilst he recognised the worth of simplification, he dismissed the three pillars as nothing more than 'clever marketing': there was something there to please everyone, but would anyone be satisfied?

The wording of the Commission's proposals was ambitious, and the requested budget similarly so. But in reality, when compared to Europe's competitors, €80bn was the minimum that was needed to keep up. The Commission intended to use this budget wisely, to leverage money from private organisations and national public governments. However, with the Eurozone heading for melt down, national governments were unlikely to stump up any matched funding, and commercial organisations were likely to be more bear than bull.

He finished by signalling that a different style of programme management was needed if Horizon 2020 was to succeed. Governance should be the substantial focus, with stakeholder buy in. More than anything there was a need for more detail as to (a) what innovation was actually defined, and (b) how it would fit within programme governance. This, for Hull, was 'perhaps the critical, insufficiently addressed issue absent from the Commission's proposal.' 

Hull regularly comments on the H2020 LinkedIn Group, and I'd encourage you to join this group to get a sense of the way the wind is blowing as the Programme develops.

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