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Lessons learnt to transition from Horizon 2020 to the new FP10


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Lessons learnt to transition from Horizon 2020 to the new FP10

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by Giuliana Miglierini

The European Commission published the ex post evaluation of Horizon 2020 (H2020), the FP8 framework programme for research and innovation (R&I) run in years 2014-2020.

The report identifies several areas of possible improvement, which may be taken into account in the definition of the new FP10 (2028-2034) that will follow the current programme Horizon Europe (FP9). Among these are a broader participation, further simplification and reduction of the administrative burden, reinforcement of the dissemination, exploitation and deployment of results, support for the participation of women and enhancement of synergies with other initiatives at EU, national and regional level.

With a overall budget of € 75.6 billion, the main goal of H2020 was to support EU’s economic growth and excellence in science, industrial leadership and societal challenges. We summarise the main features of the report.

Key numbers of Horizon 2020
Calls under H2020 collected more than a million individual applications from 177 countries. Funded projects were more than 35,000, involving more than 40,000 organisations. The true impact of the programme cannot yet be fully appreciated, as 41% of projects were still active at the time of the final evaluation and are expected to yield further results.

Many new technologies in various domains of science were developed thanks to H2020 funding, i.e. mRNA vaccines, photonics and micro- and nanoelectronics, and novel hydrogen-fuelled transports. Sustainable development benefited from investments equal to 64.4% of H2020’s budget.

Activities run under FP8 led to almost 4,000 applications for protection of intellectual property (¾ patents and 12% trademarks). Peer-reviewed publications were over 276,000. Horizon 2020 had a significant effect in boosting employment (+20%) and increasing the turnover and total assets for participating companies (+30%). The mobility of approx. 50,000 researchers across countries and sectors was also supported. The programme allowed to improve the access to newly created or upgraded research infrastructures for more than 24,000 researchers and organisations.

According to the final report, some additional € 159 billion would have been needed to fund all the high-quality proposals submitted. Despite this, the long term impact of the programme is estimated to contribute an average annual increase of €15.9 billion to EU GDP (€429 billion for the period 2014-2040), and a net gain in employment levels of around 220,000 employees at its peak.

Co-investment led to a wide development of public-private partnerships and joint undertakings, with private partners contributing resources (in cash or in kind) two-three times the volume of EU funding. The development of the venture capital ecosystems and networks was also improved.

Key scientific and societal achievements
Medical sciences, quantum mechanics, chemical engineering and composite materials were among the main scientific domains targeted by actions run under Horizon 2020, together with climate change, health and food security and other societal challenges.

The relevance of scientific publications is acknowledged by the citation frequency, that according to the report is twice the global average. A significant number of papers (4%) are among the most cited worldwide, while more than 25% covered emerging and rapidly evolving R&I sectors. The great majority of publications (82%) were published as open access papers, thus greatly supporting the circulation of knowledge.

Emerging health crises were among the main research priorities related to improvement of public health, together with rare diseases and personalised medicine. Ebola and Zika epidemics were the first targeted emergencies, but the real test case was the Covid-19 pandemic: the final report indicates H2020 and the previous FP7 are recognised as the third most frequently acknowledged funding sources for Covid-19 related research in the world.

As for climate change, this field of research received 32% of H2020 funding to support, among others, the development of alternative and low-emission fuels. Other relevant lines of R&I included the development of a smart European electricity grid, automation, energy storage integration and the adoption of renewable energy sources.

As for the ongoing digital transformation, H2020 supported for example the development of safe and user-friendly robotics. Over 20% of the overall budget was dedicated to research in social sciences and humanities disciplines.

Elements to be improved
Horizon 2020 allowed to greatly expand the European network of research infrastructures. According to the final evaluation, access to these facilities may be further improved by enabling greater synergies between EU, national and regional programmes for research infrastructure. Despite H2020 saw improvements in the presence of women in evaluation panels (42%), the fixed target of 50% share of women in scientific advisory panels and as researchers in projects was not yet achieved (43% and 23% respectively).

As for financial aspects, the interim evaluation identified a notable gap in venture and growth capital in the EU to scale up innovations. The issue was addressed through the launch, in the last three years of H2020, of a pilot to run the European Innovation Council (EIC), which according to the report showed positive preliminary results both on the turnover and staffing levels of its beneficiaries, and in tackling the critical funding gap in high-risk areas where limited alternatives are available at national and regional levels.

Preparing for the next FP10
With Horizon Europe framework programme coming to an end in 2027, the final report on results achieved by H2020 represents a first basis to reason on new research targets and financial support to be part of the new FP10 2028-2034 (you can find comments here and here).

While some members of the European Parliament already called for a FP10 budget of at least € 200 billion (see here more), several academic and scientific organisations published their proposals to be considered in the drafting of the new programme.

The European University Association (EUA), Science Europe and the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO) sent a joint open letter to EU Commissioner Iliana Ivanova, asking for a doubling of the FP10 budget to €200 billion. A higher budget stability and protection of funding from being shifted to non-R&I purposes are among other requests, together with rebalancing support across various stages of R&I (i.e. bottom-up basic research, applied research, development, and innovation). Sufficient national investments in R&I are also deemed important.

The European universities of science and technology represented by Cesaer also published a note to advance their suggestions, in line with the EU Commission’s goals of a more elaborate EU industrial policy, and the move towards EU-30+. Key elements should include the leadership in deep tech, clean-tech and biotech based on the full knowledge value chain, the use of open and competitive calls to select researchers and innovators and award funding across all parts of FP10, a stable financial environment with at least €200 billion investments and enacting the 3% GDP target to R&I agreed by the EU Council in 2002. An annual review mechanism of current performance and a ring-fence to protect the budget allocated to R&I are among the suggested actions.

Guiding principles proposed by EU-LIFE (the Alliance of research institutes advocating for excellent research in Europe) also address investments in the European Research Council, the bridging role of the European Innovation Council, the need to avoid additional pillars and fragmentation, and the development of a coherent impact approach by reducing the size of consortia and monitoring the impact of initiatives in Pillar 2.


UK will participate to European research programmes

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by Giuliana Miglierini

The divergent road opened as a consequence of the Brexit, in January 2021, between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) is now converging again as for the possibility for UK researchers to participate to Horizon Europe (HE) and Copernicus scientific programmes. The agreement in principle reached on 7 September 2023 by the European Commission and the UK Government was facilitated by the previous Windsor Framework Agreement. It shall now be ratified by the Council of the European Union, and then adopted by the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes.

The EU and UK are key strategic partners and allies, and today’s agreement proves that point. We will continue to be at the forefront of global science and research.”, said the Presi-dent of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

The possible association of the UK to Horizon Europe animated a vigorous debate in the past couple of years among the scientific international community, as well as that of other third countries such as Switzerland (those association is still pending, see below).

The current agreements in place between the UK and the EU are not comprehensive of the participation of UK’s students to the Erasmus+ programme, participation that was cancelled by the UK government in 2020.

The financial terms of the agreement

The new association of UK to both HE and Copernicus programmes will become operative star-ting 1 January 2024, superseding the previous transitional agreement that allowed UK researchers to apply and be evaluated as other potential beneficiaries under HE calls. It will become possible for UK researcher to access HE’s 2024 Funding Programme and Work Programme (including the coordination of consortia), and to participate in the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

According to the European Commission, the estimated annual contribution of the UK to Horizon Europe and the Copernicus component of the Space programme should be on average €2.6 billion, in line with the terms agreed in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The EU Commission will issue twice a year a call for funds to the UK corresponding to the due contribution. The overall EU budget for Horizon Europe is €95.5 billion, plus contributions due by the various associated countries.

The agreement is also comprehensive of a correction mechanism referred to Horizon Europe, aimed to compensate the contribution of the UK, should its receipts in grants be higher than its contribution for grants. Under the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, an automatic correction to the UK’s contribution would occur if it reached a threshold of 8% over two successive years. A balance mechanism has also been put in place to compensate for the UK receiving significantly fewer grants than its contribution. In this instance, the level of UK participation may be improved, or (should it overpays by more than 12%), the issue may be object to scrutiny by the joint Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes to agree upon the measures needed to balance the situation.

A temporary and automatic mechanism has been also agreed to address any risk of critical underperformance by the UK should the imbalance exceed 16%, based on the consideration the country did not fully participate in HE in the past two years.

The main fields of collaboration

UK’s participation to European research programmes will focus on area of mutual interest, i.e. emerging technologies, climate change and health. The participation to strategic parts of Horizon Europe – including those related to strategic assets, interests, autonomy or security – is subject to the previous assessment of UK participants on equal terms with other associated countries (Art. 22(5) of the Horizon Europe Regulation). The participation to other parts of HE will occur on equal terms with researchers and organisations from EU Member States.

Copernicus is part of the European space programme. The association will allow the UK to access a state-of-the art capacity to monitor the Earth and its services. Among the main goals of the programme is the understanding and acting on environmental and climate change related challenges. The UK will also have access to EU Space Surveillance and Tracking services.

The reactions

The announcement of the agreement on the association of the UK to European research pro-grammes found very positive reactions among the different parties interested in solving the issue.

Joining the Horizon Europe programme is a huge win for the scientific research community, who have been pushing for resolution over the past few years. UK innovation and research de-pends on international collaborations which are crucial for driving advancements in all areas of science, including the discovery and early development of new medicines and vaccines”, said Janet Valentine, ABPI Executive Director, Innovation and Research Policy. “The UK accession to Horizon enables the two sides to reinvigorate their longstanding partnership in R&D, and directly contributes to UK growth and competitiveness in the life sciences sector by making the UK an attractive destination for talented researchers.”

This decision represents a long-awaited signal for renewed international collaboration on fundamental frontier research in Europe. It will strengthen the research of all involved, both in the EU and in the UK. At the ERC, we look forward to welcoming back researchers based in the UK, after the trying last few years. They have been sorely missed, and will now be able to participate again as from our 2024 grant competitions”, said the President of the ERC, Maria Leptin.

The academic world represented by Cesaer highlighted the reintegration of UK into Horizon Eu-rope and Copernicus reaffirms the commitment of both the EU and the UK to advancing global scientific excellence. The association of the European universities of science and technology also supports further progress in building a wider international scientific community, with particular reference to Switzerland.

Today, Europe’s universities celebrate the end of a long road that began in 2016 and look for-ward to rebuilding and further developing close partnershipssaid Josep M. Garrell, President of the European Universities Association.

We are extremely grateful for the efforts of everyone in the European research community who has worked tirelessly to help secure this agreement”, added Jamie Arrowsmith, Director of Universities UK International.

Switzerland is still waiting for the association

Despite Switzerland being a very important country for research in life sciences, and location of many of the major pharmaceutical industries, the country is still waiting to restart the negotiations with the EU for its association to the European research programmes. The exclusion of Switzerland from any form of collaboration was the result, in 2021, of the political divergence with the EU on many issues.

We feel alone in the middle of Europe,” Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva, told Business|Europe.

According to the article by David Matthews, the incumbent Swiss federal elections in October 2023 and the European elections of 2024 may slow down the negotiations on the new political relationship. The association of Switzerland to EU’s research programmes might then not occur before 2025. Some explanatory talks would be already ongoing, adds the article. Sympathy for researchers in Switzerland was expressed by the ERC President, Maria Leptin. “They are not alone in the sense they are loved by all the rest of us,” she said. “There is very high-level research being done in Switzerland, same as in the UK. We all want to be one group that competes at the same level and is evaluated by the same high-level panels.


The debate on the “Do No Significant Harm” principle in R&D

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by Giulianna Miglierini

The “Do No Significant Harm” (DNSH) principle is a widely diffused approach aimed to guarantee the respect of ethical limits while dealing with many kinds of activities. It is the case, for example, of the use of big data to conduct behavioural studies, or of health research aimed to be of help to society without hurting anyone. Available frameworks regulating the ethical approach to research usually focus on the protection of participants against unwanted, potentially harmful effects resulting from the study. Examples of such frameworks are the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and the 1979 Belmont Re-port, which do not mention the protection of other people and of the environment.

The DNSH and the European Green Deal

The introduction of the Do Not Significant Harm principle within the Taxonomy regulation (EU 2020/825) represents the first example of its extensive application aimed to prevent unintended damages to the environment. According to the regulation, beneficiaries of financial support from EU institutions are expected to assess the possible negative climate and environmental impacts of their projects, and to avoid any activity that may negatively impact the sustainability objectives of the European Green Deal.

These include six main areas of attention, i.e. mitigation of and adaptation to climate change, sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources, control and prevention of pollution, the transition to a circular economy, and the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems.

The inclusion of the DNSH principle in the Taxonomy regulations means that the above-mentioned objectives would apply to any EU funded activity, including framework research programmes such as Horizon Europe.

Many critics arose from this move of the Commission, as it may greatly affect the effective capacity of researchers to plan and realise their activities. As a part of the debate, MEP member Christian Ehler presented in July 2021 a written question to the Commission aimed to clarify how the DNSH aspects of a project would be evaluated and scored during the assessment of the proposals, and the impact they may have on the final outcome of such assessment.

The written answer provided by EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel stated that “the application of the ‘Do No Significant Harm’ principle in Horizon Europe is voluntary at project level”, and that its inclusion in the project description will have no impact on the assessment of the proposal. According to the Commission, no declaration of projects compliance with the principle is re-quested, and no undue increase of the administrative burden for applicants is present. Instead, the reference made to the DNSH principle would only aim to raise awareness about the environmental risks linked to research activities and encourage the identification and mitigation of potential measures.

A second written question presented in August 2022 asked the Commission to provide further details, i.e. how many applications under Horizon Europe included the DNSH principle in the project description, the percentage of 2021/2022 budget covered by DNSH and the number of evaluations in which the DNSH principle was used in the assessment of the application.

The written answer by Commissioner Gabriel indicated references to the DNSH principle in proposals vary according to its relevance to the specific thematic area and technology readiness levels. Only 2.6% of proposals referred to parts of the programme that make no explicit reference to DNSH considered the principle; this percentage reached 29.6% for applications referred to parts of the programme making explicit reference to it (data 12 August 2022). Commissioner Gabriel also said almost half of the budget of the work programme for 2021-2022 made explicit reference to the DNSH principle, and that all EU actions and policies have to be consistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement and the Green Deal oath ‘do no harm’.

The ongoing debate

No matter to say, the position of the European Commission to extend the implementation of the DNSH principle across all research activities activated a reach debate within the R&I community. The initial objections by MEPs were based, according to Mr. Ehler, on the possible absence of “democratically legitimised criteria” (read more on Science|Business).

According to a viewpoint article published in Science|Business, the DNSH approach chosen by the Commission would be not the right way to address the issue of environmental sustainability. “Rather, research and innovation policy should be reconfigured to allow researchers to ‘stay with’ the harms they (might) do”, wrote the authors. The alternative to DNSH sees greater attention towards a better understanding of what really constitutes a “harm”. According to the authors, a definition of “significant harm” should be agreed upon between humans, non-humans, and ecosystems experiencing harm, thus avoiding any technocratically and unilaterally handed down definition. They also discuss the appropriateness of the concept of ‘situatedness’ in order to reach a suitable definition of significant harm.

Key to this vision should be the “understanding that there is no universal, objective viewpoint from which one might determine which research is beneficial or harmful, for whom, and to what degree”. To this instance, elements to be considered in the assessment include the time needed for the harm to manifest, its geographical location or the involvement of marginalised actors. Furthermore, the approach adopted by the EU Commission would not be suited to solve the ambiguities. A possible solution would be represented by the “creation of spaces where ambiguous harms can be appropriately engaged”.

The associations representing the academic and scientific world also took a position against the extension of the DNSH principle to all projects under European R&I framework programmes.

The European University Association (EUA), CESAER (representing universities of Science and Technology) and Science Europe (on behalf of major public organisations funding or performing research in the EU) jointly published a statement to ask support to the Parliament as for the approval of amendment 165, focused on feasibility, appropriateness and proportionality of all programmes and activities, in accordance with the relevant sector-specific rules. The associations also underline that the implementation of the DNSH principle should not be counterproductive and weaken the contribution of the R&I community to sustainability and green objectives.

According to EUA, clear guidelines are missing on how the principle should be implemented in practical terms. Furthermore, the broad application of the DNSH principle might especially undermine the possibility to undertake fundamental research activities. As for now, the principle applies only to European Innovation Council projects, and missions and clusters of Pillar II of particular relevance for their environmental outcomes and impacts.

In a position paper of October 2022, CAESAR asked, among others, for an “ethics by design” approach, based on a ethical checklist to be included in the design phase of projects. Briefings with the proposal evaluator and project reviewer should also be improved in order to clarify when the DNSH principle has to be taken into account.

According to Science Europe, the implementation of the principle should not add an additional administrative burden to researchers and increase the complexity of project proposals and evaluations. The association also asks for the broader application of the DNSH principle to be preceded by a thorough assessment of its current implementation in Horizon Europe.