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News 02 February 2021

EU launches Horizon Europe, planning to gain international prominence in research and innovation

With the official launch of the new Research Framework Programme, the European Union is betting on its scientists and innovators to bring Europe to the lead of international R&I in health, climate, and industry.

After months of long-lasting discussions and three different budget deals, the Presidency of the European Council formally launches today Horizon Europe, the new Research Framework Programme for the years 2021-27. The €95.5 billion (in current prices) destined to Horizon Europe represent the largest funding ever reached by R&I in the EU, a historic milestone welcomed with approval by many Commission officials and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).

In the overall budget allocated to Horizon Europe, the main beneficiaries will be the clusters on “Digital, Industry and Space” and “Climate, Energy and Mobility”. This does not come as a surprise, given the focus of the European Commission on both reaching the so-called technological sovereignty and a climate neutral Europe by 2050. The Commission has confirmed that the Work Programmes of the different parts composing Horizon Europe will only be officially launched in April at the earliest, but some documents have been leaking in the past weeks, giving an indication of the scope of the Programme. 

While there is much anticipation and enthusiasm for the beginning of this new era, a series of questions still await answers. The European Commission, through its Commissioner on Research Mariya Gabriel, has been keen on revamping the European Research Area: this mainly aims at reaching an average expenditure of 3% of the GDP on R&I across the Member States. This objective was already expressed in the year 2000 but has not yet been obtained, and it is still unclear which policies the Member States will put in place to set the situation right this time.

Among its features, Horizon Europe includes new legal provisions allowing the EU to pair different funding streams to boost research investment in member states, and reduce the innovation gap between richer and poorer countries. Still, much of the curiosity revolves around the Horizon Europe Missions. Designed to be forward-looking initiatives to deal with overarching problems, it is not yet completely clear how they will be integrated in the Programme and how they will reach their goals.

Yet, the enthusiasm is high in Brussels. A loud voice during negotiations, MEP and Horizon Europe rapporteur Christian Ehler has defined Horizon Europe “the best, most modern research programme in the world”. He also warned that it represents “the last chance that Europe has to catch up with the digital revolution”, but the outcome of negotiations has, so far, left all parties satisfied. Both research organisations and industry, as a matter of fact, have praised the efforts made to increase possibilities for collaboration through the Partnerships in Horizon Europe.

Nonetheless, MEPs have expressed the urge to open the calls to researchers. “Despite the difficult circumstances, we are calling for the automation of the programme, to be kicked off as soon as possible in the most inclusive manner, in order not to delay the start of any project and not to leave any European region behind,” said the Chair of the research and industry committee in the European Parliament Cristian Bușoi.

It is a great achievement” commented Adel El Gammal, Secretary General of EERA, “and even more in a context of increased climate momentum, notably marked by the United States re-joining the Paris International Treaty on Climate Change.  However, while welcoming the EU more ambitious 2030 intermediate climate targets and the resulting focus on “close to the market” innovation,  it is also essential to keep a proper focus on more fundamental research, needed to sustainably feed the innovation funnel in view of reaching climate neutrality by 2050”, El Gammal concluded.