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EU unveils giant research funding programme (Euractiv)

2011-11-30

Article written by Jeremy Fleming

The European Commission presented today (30 November) its €80-billion research funding programme for the decade - Horizon 2020 - with the aim of boosting research, stimulating innovation and simplifying the way scientists and smaller businesses can get funding for EU-backed projects.

The Horizon 2020 programme brings together all EU research and innovation funding under a single scheme running from 2014 to 2020.

It replaces the Seventh Framework Programme for research (FP7), which expires in 2013.

Defending Horizon 2020's launch in a time of austerity, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said the programme would serve as a driver for European growth.

A chance for growth

"We need a new vision for European research and innovation in a dramatically changed economic environment," the commissioner said. "Horizon 2020 provides direct stimulus to the economy and secures our science and technology base and industrial competitiveness for the future, promising a smarter, more sustainable and more inclusive society."

Horizon 2020 is divided into three tranches designed to boost specific causes.

The first aims to establish the EU as a leader of cutting-edge projects using a €24.5-billion budget, including funding for the European Research Council (ERC). The body, whose support for individual academic studies has garnered praise, sees its budget increase by 77%.

A second allocation is targeted at industrial innovation with a budget of €17.9 billion, including €13.7 billion for key technologies.

The third and biggest tranche, worth €31.7 billion, goes to so-called "societal challenges" divided into six themes:

  • Health, demographic change and well-being;
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research and the bio-economy;
  • Secure, clean and efficient energy;
  • Smart, green and integrated transport;
  • Climate action, resource efficiency and raw materials; and
  • Inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

The remaining €5.9 billion is set aside for the Joint Research Centre - the Commission's in-house research institution - which works on issues that include the environment, nanotechnology and nuclear safety.

Simplification for smaller businesses

The Commission has sought to considerably simplify funding applications under the new research programme, replacing several existing funding schemes with two. Four existing methods for calculating costs under the various schemes will be replaced with one calculator.

The programme represents a breakthrough for small and medium enterprises under EU projects. A clause within Horizon stipulates that 15% of the second and third tranches described above (worth €8.6 billion) must be allotted to smaller companies.

Funds were previously reserved for pure research, and remained either unclaimed by small firms or reserved for more specialist vehicles, such as research units spun off from university science parks.

Under the new programme, smaller firms will be able to apply for funding for new proposals, fund the research and technological development of such ideas, and receive help bringing them to market.

Tapping into regional funds

Controversially, the new programme will operate in tandem with the EU regional - or 'structural' - funds. Under the proposals, Horizon 2020 will award seals of excellence to universities and research centres once they have demonstrated a level of proficiency up to the highest EU standards.

Such regions, usually found in the newer member states of eastern Europe, will be encouraged to use structural funds to bring their research infrastructure up to scratch to win such seals, which will enable them to attract more funds from Horizon and private investors.

Some eastern member states resist the move, since they believe it could reduce their ability to use the structural funds for infrastructure projects, and also limit their access to Horizon 2020. Officials in the Commission's Research directorate pointed out that under the Horizon proposal, there are special provisions designed to mentor and help such regions to benefit from the programme.

Positions: 

"I particularly welcome the societal challenges giving an emphasis to health, and am also pleased with the proposals to increase the combined efforts of the structural funds and Horizon, but we will still be demanding a bigger budget for research in the Parliament," said MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho (Portugal; European People's Party).