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.