An empty road that goes to the horizon to illustrate Horizon Europe

First impressions of Horizon Europe

Yesterday evening I asked my sixteen year old daughter where she would look to learn about innovation in the world.

„Stupid question: it’s America, dad. That’s where the best universities are, Harvard and MIT, you know; that’s where the best companies are, just think of Google and Tesla, or the coolest gadgets made, just think of Apple. Maybe China, with Alibaba, Xiaomi also?”

Europe, the land she calls home, was not mentioned.

In the past few decades the US was the biggest competitor of the European Union in terms of knowledge creation, research and innovation (R&I). This is not the case any more, and not because Europe has overtaken the US in scientific excellence or has created a superior environment for innovation. The reason is simply, that the competition has widened and there are clear signs that other regions, China and the BRIS countries (Brasil, Russia, India and South Africa), are quickly catching up. The situation has changed, the question therefore is not whether Europe can stand the research competitiveness competition with the US, but whether Europe will maintain its position as one of the leaders in knowledge creation, research and innovation in the years to come? The picture looks bleak.

The burden of living up to this challenge rests mainly on the shoulders of the leaders of Europe and the European Commission. A sound design and implementation of the next framework program for research and innovation funding will be key to ascertain that Europe stays a serious competitor in the global research and innovation game. Horizon Europe has been announced last week. The new Framework Programme was framed as the „most ambitious Research and Innovation program yet”. First impressions confirm this statement with strong caveats.

While the program embraces some of the recommendations of the Lamy Report, the most comprehensive set of recommendations for designing FP9, it falls short of the biggest ask of leading stakeholder groups, such as the European University Association and the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy committee, to significantly increase or even double the funding of the previous framework program to 160 billion euros. The announcement confirming previous rumours of a budget of 100 billion, an increase of a mere 30% in nominal terms, for European Research and Innovation will leave many disappointed.

On a more positive note the new framework program fully recognises the Lamy Report’s call for a more mission oriented approach to research and innovation: the Global Challenges and Industrial Competitiveness pillar includes a vision of new, European wide research and innovation missions, inter- and trans-disciplinary projects, that tackle major societal challenges such as the “fight against cancer, clean transport or plastic-free oceans.” These missions are said to be co-designed with citizens and stakeholders. This is to be applauded.

A more citizen and stakeholder inclusive approach to research and innovation is key to maintain Europe’s competitiveness in R&I. As the Lamy report states: “Fully mobilising and involving stakeholders, end-users and citizens in the post-2020 EU R&I programme, for instance in defining its missions, will not only increase the degree of co-creation, it will also maximise its impact and stimulate a stronger demand for innovative products and services as well as a better grasp of social changes.” Europe began experimenting with an increased attention to building knowledge on better aligning science and society already in its 6th Framework program. Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and a call for Open Innovation, Open Science and Open to the World has been present to some extent in European research and innovation funding Framework Programmes ever since. As Europe also continues to experience challenges of trust in democratic and scientific institutions as well as lagging behind in its R&I competitiveness, EC commitments to RRI and stakeholder and citizen inclusive science may be more important than ever. As opposed to “permissionless innovation” practised in the US and China, where science and technology comes first and social and ethical considerations later if at all, Europe is right to frame its research and innovation policies by better aligning them with societal expectations.

As our research in NewHoRRIzon, a multi-institution project looking at the uptake of RRI across the currently closing 8th Framework Programme H2020, has shown RRI often is included only as a pro-forma set of practices rather than meeting the spirit of the requirements around research ethics, public engagement, and gender equality. Unfortunately, in H2020 when public or stakeholder dimensions are included in projects, definitions of publics or stakeholders are often very narrow and constraining. Particularly at the earlier stages of the journey from lab to product, larger actors, mainly from industry, have been dominant in setting research and policy agendas. Only a small percentage of dedicated projects explored ethical issues associated with R&I and focused on science education or conduct citizen involvement. Mixed messages of citizen engagement and participation demonstrated an inconsistency in the Commission’s approach to supporting stakeholder inclusive research and may have hindered larger EC aspirations of inclusive and sustainable development driven by R&I aligned with values, needs, and expectations of European citizens.

It is therefore laudable to see that in missions citizens and other stakeholders (users, civil society actors, citizen scientists, students, citizen innovators) will be involved at the earliest stages of setting research agendas and, hopefully, being engaged with the missions throughout their lifetimes. As the European RRI community has emphasised anticipation, reflection, responsiveness and inclusion are key to a more competitive European research and innovation ecosystem. It is also encouraging that a specific new program-line “Strengthening the European Research Arena” has been announced. Both “Sharing scientific excellence” and “Reforming and Enhancing the European R&I system”, as potential drivers of change, should involve and engage European citizens to participate in bringing transformation to the traditional knowledge hierarchies of and outmoded approaches to organising research and innovation. We share with the EC that research and innovation are excellent when they are capable of engaging with, reflecting on, and using the multitude of different types of knowledge European citizens may offer to the common European research and innovation agenda.

As Commissioner Moedas announced, the European Research Council (ERC) will be strengthened to address EU’s global scientific leadership. This is to be supported. The ERC, an institution driven by scientific excellence only, is key to the success of the European research arena. Our research in NewHoRRIzon, however, also concluded that basing evaluation solely on the concept of peer-reviewed and bibliometric scientific excellence hinders frontier science from engaging with broader values and interests related to the coproduction of socially robust scientific knowledge and innovation base.

Strengthening the ERC should also be coupled with opening it to methods of participatory evaluation (involving other societal actors in evaluating proposals), focusing on excellent researchers having been involved in trans-disciplinary research or other forms of multi-stakeholder co-operations (like quadruple helix innovation, citizen science initiatives or open innovation). The European Research Council should also embrace inter- and trans-disciplinary projects to a greater extent and move away from bibliographic measures of quality. As Sir Richard Roberts, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and chief scientific officer of Massachusetts-based bioscience supplier New England Biolabs, claims relying “on citation data and bibliographic measures of quality” is a “very flawed way of judging good quality science”.

First impressions confirm that the new Framework Programme has begun the long journey of creating a unique and competitive European approach to research and innovation. This involves engaging and involving its citizens into setting agendas, co-designing and co-creating excellent research and innovation together with its stakeholders. Early first steps show this commitment. However, the devil rests in the details. Once we know more about the programmes, the calls, the evaluation processes and the missions, we may be better able to assess whether the European Commission has lived up to the challenge of keeping Europe in play for the most innovative knowledge economy in the world, involving and engaging those that science research and innovation are meant to serve. A funding and policy regime fostering a stronger integration of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) into the European research and innovation ecosystem will multiply the power of Europeans to create knowledge by involving the creative potential not only of research labs, but also of other venues and publics of the European public sphere. Effective funding and policy may help Europe, its citizens, researchers and innovators, to get from lab to market better, cleaner and more sustainable innovations. The goal is to create an R&I environment together that enhances competiveness as well as wellbeing for and inclusion of all.

Robert Braun

Senior Researcher, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna and member of the NewHoRRIzon research team

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6 thoughts on “First impressions of Horizon Europe”

  1. The burden of living up to this challenge [Europe maintaining its leading position in knowledge creation, research and innovation] rests mainly on the shoulders of the leaders of Europe and the European Commission.

    I personally agree with this sentiment; unfortunately a sizeable chunk of people, especially in the UK, where I live, would not. Innovation, they would say, can’t be switched on or off by those at the top; it’s a bottom-up enterprise. That’s why so many people are opposed to the EU.

  2. Stable long time investment would be indeed favourable for science. I am convinced that there are many important scientific questions that can not be addressed in the current funding regime. I also agree that the competition for funding has become somewhat precarious and makes planned strategic scientific work difficult and the quest for money frustrating. Also there are clearly funding gaps.

    Yet, the framework programme has always clearly been a programme for enhancing innovation and has hence always had a strong focus on the creation of technology. Creation of technology and its introduction into the market can only succeed if the market (i.e. enterprises ) takes over at some point otherwise technology tends not to meet the expectations of potential customers. In other words: I think the situation is very different in science and in innovation.

    What has been very absent from the debate on science and innovation so far is the understanding that there is no such thing as purely technological innovation because technology is always created to be introduced into society, which makes all techology based innovation socio-technical innovation. In other words the introduction of technology into society changes the very fabric of society and introduced new rules into the social game. I therefore think that the EU has the responsibility to create an environment in which the question “which technology is desireable for society at large” can and must be asked. Faced with almost infinite technological possiblity the EU should assure that those technologies are selected that proof benefical for the European citizens. I am convinced that RRI can contribute to that.

    1. @Ulrich
      My frustration stems from the fact that we have the same problems as 15 years ago, and despite spelling them out and discussing them in public, things only get worse. All these brilliant brains in various think tanks, EU institutions, and advisory committees were not helpful in bringing change.
      You are right, the programme focuses on innovation, but this obsession on “innovation”, “paradigm shift”, “technical change” and other similar vague buzzwords is precisely what detracts us from real issues: precarity of university employment, predatory publishers, overproduction of graduates, terrifying waste of time on the preparation of grants, disintegration of public research infrastructure, growing distrust to science and rational thinking in general… It is all connected one to another.
      Instead of innovation, we should perhaps focus on “maintenance”, on preserving the institutions of science, of critical thinking and of independent expertise. And currently, we give them up to gain some marginal advantage over the Americans in producing… technological gadgets. It seems like we are jealous of Americans so we decide to repeat their own mistakes. And everything indicates that the EU is not up to the challenge and simply reiterates the same nonsense as in every preceding programme.
      Oh, I don’t want to be rude, but if Apple, an overgrown marketing company selling overpriced phones manufactured by Chinese slave labour is the epitome of innovation (as suggests the introduction to the article), we are truly lost.

      1. I understand your frustration and I share it. To all the things you mentioned: yes, yes, yes! – Changing established organizational systems (like universities, public administration units, etc.) seems to be incredibly difficult and to be honest I have no real answer on how to do it just some suggestions on what might have been the problem so far:
        It seems that in the past lots of actors were active trying to improve the R&I systems all over Europe, but they were it seems not sufficiently aware of (a) the human factor (limits, needs, values, expectations, etc.) and (b) the need for multi-level multi-stakeholder communication. Also, I suspect that most of the active actors were focussing too much on trying to solve the problems on their end instead of getting everyone in a room to solve it from all ends.

        My understanding of RRI is that it campaigns for the creation of a multitude of spaces of multi-level multi-stakeholder communication, reflection, experimentation and intervention where proper responses to the situation in place can be developed and tried. – The NewHoRRIzon Social Labs are a first shot at a prototype of these places. Let’s see how they turn out.

        I agree with you that the language used in these discussions is often bulky and difficult to understand. I presonally hope that it’s not like that for everyone.

        1. I hope you are right. It is just sometimes hard to keep cold blood seeing all the inertia around you, and genuine life troubles of your students and colleagues struggling to get funding, jobs etc.

  3. The amount of jargon is unbearable. It seems like EU officials hoped to transform the European science through semantics. What European science needs is not a more “managerial mentality”, no more “competitive projects”, but long-term regular investments: stability. This stability is for now guaranteed by the contributions of the individual states, not by the EU. This is how you create the intellectual critical mass and restore trust to academia. If the EU aspires to emulate US but with a more “ethical spin”, it will always lag behind.