Thursday, 24 May 2018

What's on the Horizon?

Cue 'Ode to Joy' (photo: Phil Ward)
A proposal for Horizon Europe, the successor to Horizon 2020, is due to be published on 7 June 2018. However there have been plenty of hints, suggestions and straightforward leaks already, and the current plan is the worst kept secret ever. So what do we know so far? Well, unless there are significant changes in the next couple of weeks, here are the seven take home points.

  1. It’s bigger than ever. The European Commission has outlined plans for a €100bn budget for the programme which is due to run between 2021-2027. This is made up of €97.6bn for Horizon Europe, and €2.4bn for Euratom, the nuclear research programme. That’s a 30% increase on the €77bn for H2020. Although less than the €120bn that the European Parliament was angling for, the research programme is one of the few areas that is due to rise in the EU's long term budget (or Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF)). It's still to be agreed, so expect to see a lot of bargaining and horse trading to come. And there is some worry that this will carry us close to the finish line, as it did before H2020, so there might be a slightly startled and rushed first tranche of calls.
  2. It’s an evolution, not a revolution. Unlike the move between the last few framework programmes, there won’t be a major overhaul. There will still be three pillars, and there will be shifting around within the pillars, but they will broadly remain the same. So, the Horizon Europe pillars will look like this:
    • Pillar I: Open Science. This was known as ‘Excellent Science’ under H2020. It is the responsive mode part of the European funding, and includes the ERC, MSCA, and research infrastructures. The only change here is that FET will shift to Pillar III as the ‘Pathfinder’ programme.
    • Pillar II: Global Challenges. This is the former ‘Societal Challenges’ pillar. There has been some rejigging of the themes into larger ‘clusters’, and the current proposal is that there will be five, including elements that used to come under ‘industrial leadership’ (see below)’ They will be:
      • Health
      • Digital and Industry
      • Food and Natural Resources
      • Climate, Energy and Mobility
      • Resilience and Security
There’s a suggestion of tying them in more closely to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and, interestingly, of ‘partners from across the[ing] invited to join EU efforts.’ The Framework Programme has not traditionally been particularly open to partners outside of Europe, so this might signal a shift to a more globalised view.
    • Pillar III: Open Innovation. Formerly known as ‘Industrial Leadership’, this is all about commercialisation and collaborations with industry. This is where the European Innovation Council (EIC), which was piloted under H2020, is due to take flight.
  1. It will adopt a missionary position. The draft proposals suggest that the EC is keen on ‘missions’. What exactly are they? We don’t know yet. Bigger than projects, smaller than, well, planets. My understanding is that they’re large, interdisciplinary ‘transformative’ collaborations. They will involve stakeholders from beyond the R&I community. They won’t be prescriptive (although they will still come under Pillar II rather than I). The EC’s Regulatory Scrutiny Board was somewhat unimpressed with all this missionary talk, suggesting that the case hadn’t been made for their ‘rationale and value.’ DG Research needed to ‘more convincingly explain how the overall governance and practical organisation of the mission will deliver on the expected societal engagement and ownership.’ A large, sprawling messy collaborations that are difficult to govern? *Cough* Networks of Excellence *cough*.
  2. It loves citizen science. Interestingly, like the UKRI Strategic Prospectus, there’s a strong populist narrative. Take, for instance, the missions. One draft I’ve seen suggests that they ‘must be readily understandable to the public, captivating in nature, and therefore liable to incite the active engagement of concerned citizen groups.’ Elsewhere there’s talk about ensuring ‘an appropriate engagement with citizens at all stages.’ It’s not clear what form all this engagement will take, but it’s clearly part of the zeitgeist. And, given the zeitgeist’s recent record, I’m frankly nervous.
  3. It will innovate to accumulate. Innovation was moved centre stage for H2020 as part of the ‘Innovation Union’ (remember that?), and for the past couple of years there’s been a dry run of a European Innovation Council (EIC). The idea was to create a sister body to the ERC, and thereby give innovation an equal standing to research. In Horizon Europe, the EIC becomes central, and the third pillar is built around it. The Regulatory Scrutiny Board is as unimpressed by the EIC as it is about the missions, however. It needs to ‘demonstrate that [it] addresses a legitimate unmet demand from innovators that cannot be met more efficiently and competently through other means or existing structures.’ Ouch! Still, we’ve got to hope for the best. The two main schemes within the EIC will be the Pathfinder and Accelerator, both of which sound fabulously sexy and should really be licensed to a sports car manufacturer for their new models. Elsewhere it wants to increase risk finance and ‘simplify...the European landscape for funding research and innovation.’ Yeah, good luck with that. 
  4. It’s open wide. The EC’s push for open access has been surging ahead since FP7, but H2020 saw the creation of OpenAIRE to support this. OpenAIRE is now lobbying for a more immersive open data, open science experience. It wants more joined up infrastructure and key services, and a change in culture. One proposal I saw suggested that the current ‘embracement of open science and open data practises’ is ‘sub-optimal’. The EC is due to build a €6.4m platform to help with open publication, but I expect Horizon Europe to go much further in it’s demand for participants to publish not only their findings but their underlying data if they get EU funding. Don’t try to hide, now.
  5. Britain will still be a part of it. Or possibly apart from it. In her speech on 21 May Theresa May made clear that she’s still keen for the UK to have ‘full association’ with Horizon Europe, and would be willing to make an ‘appropriate financial contribution’. It reminds me slightly of those cafes where you pay what you think the meal was worth. Anyway, this all needs to be ratified by the EU. The UK was the top beneficiary of H2020 and one EU official was quoted as saying that, for Horizon Europe, ‘the cake is bigger, and the guy that was eating most of the cake is no longer at the table.’ So don't be surprised if the glutton is not invited to dine. As much as anything, his manners are deplorable.

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