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Parliament in push to open up Horizon 2020 (Science|Business)

Parliament in push to open up Horizon 2020 (Science|Business)

2012-05-31

Key MEPs are calling for specific measures to widen the horizon of the EU's flagship research programme and ensure there is more participation from member states with less-developed R&D systems

Leading members of the European Parliament are pushing for new initiatives to spread Horizon 2020's proposed €80 billion in EU research and innovation funding more equitably across Europe, without abandoning its core principle of excellence.

Suggested measures for achieving this include matching richer universities with less well-off counterparts to apply for funding together in a new 'twinning' scheme, creating  a grant programme for researchers who return to less-developed member states, and improving coordination between Horizon 2020 and Europe's structural funds.

The proposals put forward in a draft report published today (31 May) by Maria da Graça Carvalho MEP (EPP), a member of the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) committee, are intended to make Horizon 2020 funding more accessible to smaller research institutes and projects that find it hard to compete with some of Europe's richest research organisations.

Currently, the lion's share of EU R&D funding ends up in wealthy member states, like the UK, France and Germany. This has long been a source of contention between less-developed, newer, member states and the richer countries in the north and west of Europe, which have so far resisted calls to create geographic quotas. Carvalho now argues that Europe does not have to abandon the principle of excellence in order to spread R&D money more equally across the continent.

Parliament's new proposals are being made as European research ministers reached an agreement on the overall structure of Horizon 2020. Talks about the more specific programs will continue into next year, indicated Danish research minister Morten Østergaard: "The next step is that the Cypriot and Irish Presidencies will continue the negotiations on Horizon 2020 with the European Parliament," he said at today's meeting. Cyprus is set to take over the Council presidency from Denmark in July, to be succeeded by Ireland in 2013.

"We have now to hear the opinion of the European Parliament on Horizon 2020,"
said EU research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn at the same meeting, promising research ministers to "help the current and incoming presidency to deliver on the other Horizon 2020 legislative proposals, namely the Rules for Participation and Dissemination, the Specific Programme and Euratom."

Formulating amendments

Carvalho is the Parliamentary rapporteur for the "Specific Programme Implementing Horizon 2020," making her responsible for formulating the Parliament's amendments to the European Commission's legislative proposal for Horizon 2020 that will be included in the final version of her report. In this position, Carvalho will lead the formal discussion of the Parliament's position with research ministers in the Council, and with the European Commission. Her report is one of a series of formal responses on the seven-year plan for funding research, development and innovation, going from the Parliament to the Commission this week. Final decisions on the exact shape of Horizon 2020 won't be made until 2013.

"It is not only the well-established institutes that put out excellent research," Carvalho told Science|Business. Many smaller research groups and projects based in newer member states don't have the resources to apply for EU research grants, as things stand today - even though they may produce excellent research. Carvalho outlined her proposals in an interview with Science|Business.

1. Create a twinning scheme for universities

The European Commission should allow universities in richer countries and those in less-developed member states to team up and apply for Horizon 2020 funding together. This would be a "win win situation," Carvalho said, allowing a less-developed institution to benefit from the expertise and good name of its more-renowned counterpart, which would in turn have the benefit of attracting excellent students from its partner, and an increase in scientific publications.

Carvalho had first-hand experience of such partnerships as a researcher from the Technical University of Lisbon working at Imperial College London. The collaboration was beneficial for both institutions, she said. It also spurred further development of Portugal's R&D system, since after Imperial College, Carvalho went on to become a professor in Lisbon, and later held the post of science, innovation and higher education minister in the Portuguese government under then prime-minister José Manuel Barroso.

Horizon 2020 should provide funding for travel and infrastructure to support this twinning scheme, proposes Carvalho.

2. Reward researchers who return to less developed regions

The European Research Council (ERC) - the EU's main basic research funding mechanism - should reward researchers who return from a career in a highly-developed member state to conduct research in one of the EU's less-developed regions, says Carvalho. The grants would also apply to researchers currently working outside Europe.

This suggestion aims to help reverse the brain drain from eastern Europe to the West and to the US.

3. Include science in the FET funding scheme

Carvalho proposes including basic science in the Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme and renaming it Future Emerging Science and Technologies (FEST). Currently FET funds ICT-related basic research only.

4. Establish ERC grants for groups of researchers

The ERC should expand a current pilot project -  called Synergy Grants - in which it hands out grants to groups of researchers, rather than individuals, in an attempt to make basic research funding more accessible for smaller, "less well known," research groups, said Carvalho.

Legislative process

Carvalho's report is due for adoption in the ITRE committee this autumn, with a plenary vote following in December or early 2013. Once the final version of the report putting forward specific amendments to the European Commission's Horizon 2020 proposal, has been adopted by the European Parliament, the ball will be in the court of the Council.

The "Specific Programme Implementing Horizon 2020" report by Carvalho is one in a series of Horizon 2020 draft reports that are to be released to the public on 18 June. The following draft reports linked to Horizon 2020 are being handed in for translation this week, with some of the rapporteurs publishing the report in its original language on their websites:

  • Horizon 2020 Regulation
    Rapporteur: Riera Madurell (S&D)
  • Rules for Participation
    Rapporteur: Christian Ehler (EPP)
  • EIT Regulation
    Rapporteur: Philippe Lamberts (Greens)
  • EIT Strategic Innovation Agenda
    Rapporteur: Marisa Matias (European Left)
  • Euratom Treaty
    Rapporteur: Peter Skinner (S&D)

The measure would make more room in the ERC projects for researchers in newer member states who don't have access to the resources provided to scientists employed by more renowned institutions in well-developed member states, said Carvalho. The ERC's main focus, however, should still be on individual researchers, she added.

5. Link the structural funds and Horizon 2020

Carvalho's report calls for a formal link between the EU's structural funds - which are intended to reduce disparities in wealth between different regions and member states in Europe - and Horizon 2020.

Structural funds should be used to prepare countries for participation in Horizon 2020 by financing new equipment, developing human resources and creating clusters in Horizon 2020's priority areas. The funds could also provide small grants to support the preparation of Horizon 2020 research proposals, says Carvalho.

Once Horizon 2020 research projects are completed, structural funds could be used to complete the innovation cycle by funding for pilot schemes and demonstration projects.

The Horizon 2020 budget

There's some suggestion the Commission's €80 billion proposal could face rigorous trimming by a Council hung up on austerity, but Carvalho indicates the European Parliament will resist this saying, "I don't believe the European Parliament should agree with anything less." If the Council wants to focus on growth and jobs, "they can't cut Horizon 2020," she said.

Carvalho foresees a delay in the adoption of the overall Horizon 2020 programme, indicating that there would not be a provisional agreement between the Council and Parliament before spring 2013. The delay would mean the Irish presidency in the first sixth months of 2013 will play a major role in the Horizon 2020 negotiations.

A timely agreement is essential to give the Commission enough time to prepare for the first calls for proposals that are set to be announced in January 2014, when the current R&D scheme, Framework Programme 7, expires.

See article by Peter Koekoek here, Science|Business