Beyond Horizon 2020: Europe’s winning streak of innovation and research ambition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The successor of Horizon 2020 should be the centralised instrument for funding excellent applied research and practical innovation in the EU.

The successor of Horizon 2020 should be the centralised instrument for funding excellent applied research and practical innovation in the EU. [Shutterstock]

Despite the programme’s shortcomings, Horizon 2020 is one of the greatest things that ever happened to EU research and innovation. But it’s time to rethink the respective financing through the EU budget, writes Andrey Novakov.

Andrey Novakov MEP (EPP, BG), is a member of the Committee on Regional Development in the European Parliament.

The bulk of EU’s R&I investment for the 2014-2020 period comprises €80 billion channelled through Horizon 2020 and another €44 billion originating from Cohesion Policy operational programmes.

This portfolio is strengthened by instruments such as the EU programme for the competitiveness of SMEs (COSME), European Investment Bank (EIB Group) operations, etc. The end budget, in combination with national investment, defines Europe’s efforts to blaze the trail to innovative economic and social development.

One event will seal the fate of EU investments in research and innovation (R&I) for the next decade.

The European Commission is expected to release the proposal for EU’s next multiannual budget (MFF) by the end of May 2018. The subsequent MFF agreement will put R&I funding either in the winning or in the losing position. The big ideas on how much to invest, what and how to finance should come in the backdrop of the MFF decision-making.

The post-Horizon 2020 era depends on the lessons learnt and EU’s future ambitions. On the one hand, the mid-term evaluation of the programme revealed a well-known list of issues.

On the other, our goal is to beat the bad statistics in the competition with global innovation hubs such as Asia and the US, where research and development expenditure reaches 3.5% on the average. A taste of uncertainty in the EU is also evident, following the line-up of internal and external challenges.

Introducing the right changes to the EU’s R&I investment mechanics will solve the existing issues. Hence, the following ideas represent potential decision options and offer food for thought.

Currently, Horizon 2020 is like a flashlight spreading an average light over a wide area. The successor of the programme should be mission-oriented even further with funding closely-linked to fewer but bigger goals.

Such a structure would allow research and innovation capacity to be channelised and concentrated in solving concrete problems. The flashlight should become a laser – more focus, more strength.

Furthermore, the weight of economy-related R&I investment should be underlined because stronger and competitive EU economy means employment, social progress and wellbeing. Therefore, economy and industry needs should be in the lead when defining investment priorities.

Market-changing technical innovations and applied scientific breakthroughs should be key. In this regard, EU funding to public sector researchers should aim at strengthening the capacity of weakly innovative regions. As for the rest, more investment should be awarded selectively to fewer researchers.

The successor of Horizon 2020 should be the centralised instrument for funding excellent applied research and practical innovation in the EU. The budget may have to be increased significantly to allow for more high-quality projects to be covered or to allow for larger R&I funding per project.

An ambitious budget is needed but the final figure should come after setting priorities and principles. R&I funding under Cohesion Policy should further support regional innovation. If the successor of Horizon 2020 remains the top-down support, regional EU funding should be the bottom-up approach that reflects regional priorities.

The available R&I cohesion budget should be significantly higher and should be targeted at the modest innovators in the EU in order to turn regional innovation strategies into reality.

Inclusion should be a key principle in the successor of Horizon 2020. Regional success rate divergence gap could be narrowed by reviewing the evaluation system and establishing a catching-up priority axis.

The available funding for researchers mobility should also be significantly inflated in order to improve the performance of weakly innovative regions. The European Commission should consider launching combined expertise advisory support offices in Member States where research and development investments are below 2% of GDP (EU average).

The presence of non-financial technical support regionally will bridge the EU funded science and innovation to the economy. Scientists are there for the discovery, technical assistance should be a pipeline to business plans, investors and funding.

The window of opportunity for shaping the future of the EU’s R&I investment is relatively small. Both research and innovation are proactive by nature. Therefore, the EU’s R&I policy and funding cannot be reactive. Impact, value and change should be the answer to a question on the goals of the next generation of EU funding for researchers, innovators and scientists.

Andrey Novakov is also co-host of the 9th European Innovation Summit and the first EUTop50 ‘Hemicycle Start-up Convention’, this year organised in the context of the first ever European Innovation Week (27 November to 1 December 2017). EURACTIV is a Media Partner of these events. 

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