Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I’m often asked what the EU does. This question can be, and usually is, a loaded one. However, I do very much understand the need to know what this intergovernmental organisation does. The only issue is that this is a very broad question.
So let us narrow it down to one aspect, and then explore it. Something that ties the cyber attack on University Maastricht (UM) to the Covid-19 crisis...drum roll…: The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP8)! Now is that not a sexy title for a funding programme? I hope I didn’t lose you. There have been 8, soon to be 9, iterations of this program since 1984. Why so few? Well, as some of you might already know, the EU funds all of its programmes through the Multiannual Financial Framework (or MFF), which is a long term budget agreed on by the Member States, through the Council, and approved by the European Parliament. This budget covers 7 years. The MFF is, thus far, about 1% of gross national income of each Member State. It’s split into a number of broad categories (or ‘headings’ in EU jargon) like Security, Sustainable growth or Competitiveness for growth. Support for Research and Innovation is part of the latter. With this explained let’s explore what FP8 is; more glamorously entitled: Horizon 2020.
So what is Horizon 2020 and what does it do? It is a research funding framework that allocates €80 billion over the period 2014-2020 (hence the name). A wee bit of context for the programme is necessary to understand what it does. It started with the idea of integrating European research to avoid the fragmentation and duplication of research efforts across Europe, to share resources and enable research initiatives of a scale and scope rarely possible at the national level. It evolved in the early 2010’s known as the Innovation Union. This policy aimed to achieve three things: 1. To make Europe a world-class science performer, 2. To reduce market fragmentation and barriers to research such expensive patenting and skills shortages, and 3. To change how public and private sector actors interact in the field of research, also promoting partnerships between European institutions, Member States, and regions. This has now evolved into the Open Science, Open Innovation, Open to the World policy, which places more emphasis on opening up the process to a bottom-up approach from researchers and promoting global research networks. This all is neatly tied together by the concept of the European Research Area, which has the main purpose of creating more effective national and transnational research systems, improving coordination and competitiveness, and attempting to address the circulation and open access to knowledge. This then drives the thinking around how the Horizon 2020 framework should work and be used. Understanding all this, it still begs the question: how does it operate?
H2020 (as the youths refer to it) is the main instrument for the funding of research, it differs from previous framework programs as it is used with greater emphasis to foster job creation and economic growth. It also focuses on addressing the biggest societal issues (health, climate change, food safety, ect.) and then investing in solutions. The framework is split into three major parts, or ‘Pillars’ (en jargon), being: Excellence in Science, Industrial Leadership, and Societal Challenges. In these three pillars “calls for proposals” are published and researchers can apply for grants, either as individuals (for basic research), or as consortia from different universities, research institutes, and companies (for applied research), to submit collaborative research projects. They are then peer-reviewed by independent experts. The best projects are selected and receive funding spanning several years. Calls are published each year over the seven-year programme. The first pillar, Excellence in Science, focusing on researchers and retaining talent in the EU. This is achieved in two ways: grants for “bottom-up” basic research through the European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions; and support for research infrastructures that are available to all researchers across the planet. The second pillar, Industrial Leadership, primarily focuses on manufacturing and processing solutions that are cutting edge, attempting to engage industry partners and entice people to come to Europe when working on these advanced technologies, focusing on fun sci-fi sounding technologies such as: nano-tech, bio-tech, advanced materials, and of course aerospace. The third pillar, Societal Challenges, focuses on the issues faced by European and global citizens, addressing them through collaboration and innovative solutions. These include: health, climate action, security, inclusive and reflective societies, and more.
So how does this link the cyber attack on UM in late 2019 and the current Covid-19 pandemic? H2020 is helping to tackle these. At the intersection of all three pillars you will find: Strategic Programmes for Advanced Research and Technology, or SPARTA (I know, cool name). Although it is funded via the Industrial Leadership pillar, it is a project that straddles aspects of all the three pillars, aiming to foster cyber security competencies and pan-european collaboration to address the evolving challenges of cyber-crime and cyber-security. Another cyber-security project funded under pillar 3 of H2020 is CyberWiser.eu which aims to equip people with multidisciplinary cyber-security skills in a variety of organisations, including universities, public organisations, and private industry. It does this by conducting large-scale cyber attack simulations, to both enable the study of large scale cyber attacks and to have more people with practical experience. Nifty stuff.
H2020 is also very important as it relates to the Covid-19 pandemic. Since its launch in 2014, H2020 has seen over €2.3 billion invested in the research of infectious diseases with at least €1 billion more foreseen this year, specifically pertaining to Covid-19, including efforts to prepare countries for exactly this sort of problem. This has supported projects like PREPARE - the Platform for European Preparedness Against (Re-)emerging Epidemics - which supports the readiness of hospitals in Europe and enhances their understanding of the dynamics of the outbreak. Another is the European Virus Archive (EVA), with over €32 million invested from 2009-2023 to establish the largest collection of mammalian viruses, an invaluable asset to researchers globally, ensuring validity and reliability of diagnosis. Since the start of the pandemic EVA has distributed 2200 samples of reference material to check diagnostic tests for coronavirus to researchers in 80 countries. Finally, as an immediate response to the outbreak, the EU has leveraged €140 million to research a Covid-19 vaccine, at least €90 million coming from H2020. This illustrates that this part of the MFF budget plays a large societal role, vital to improving and maintaining the quality of life for Europeans; both in the long-term and short-term.
Now, understanding what H2020 is, the question becomes: ok, now what? The next Framework Programme is FP9 also known as Horizon Europe (HE). The Commission has proposed an ambitious €100 billion programme, again over seven years. Pillar 1 would remain unchanged, however pillars 2 and 3 would become: 2. Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness, 3. Innovative Europe. Pillar 2 for the most part fuses H2020’s pillars 2 and 3. Pillar 3 focuses on creating ecosystems for innovation and creating, amongst other goals. The real novelty of HE is the concept of Missions. Missions will be a mandate given by the commision in order to solve a pressing societal challenge and specify a timeframe and budget. There are ‘areas’ under which these missions will be created, being: cancer, climate change adaptation, health of waters, soil health and food, and climate-neutral and smart cities. The hope is that these missions will spur innovation.
There is something worth mentioning and this wouldn’t be a complete article if I didn’t mention the B word. Brexit. You thought you could get away with not hearing about it again. Well, it still is a current issue and also poses interesting implications in research. While the United Kingdom (UK) leaving means their MFF contributions, and membership privileges, go with them, not all participants in H2020 are EU Member States. There are also Associated Countries (AC) involved. These contribute to the budget for the framework programme, their contribution being roughly equivalent to the proportion of funding that member states contribute to the framework programme through the MFF. This means that out of the 1% of GNI contribution, a part of that will go to H2020. This part is more or less what is paid by participating countries. These countries include places like Switzerland, Norway, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine, and Tunisia among others. Most likely the UK would seek to become an AC and thus still fulfill its budget contribution to HE, just as it did for H2020, but in the short term, as it is neither a MS or an AC, it is considered as a Third Country, which means that it can still participate but its researchers are not entitled to any funding.
With the future characteristically uncertain it is hard to imagine what will happen next month let alone for the next seven years. HE will be the next attempt at a more consolidated European research program, building off the successes and shortcomings of H2020. A big part of the proposed HE programme is/was expected to be support for research and development to enable the Green Deal. A big question now is the extent to which the Commission needs to revisit its strategic plan for R&D to support the economic stimulus, relocalisation, and also better preparedness for pandemics. In the current pandemic, expertise and technical ability have been highlighted again as vital, but will this translate into continued comprehensive actions on the part of global actors? Who knows. But Europe can look forward to another seven years of research and more under Horizon Europe.