Horizon Europe: Grounds for investment

Horizon Europe is the best tool at hand to reach our economic and social goals, but it needs more support, argues Christian Ehler.

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By Christian Ehler

10 Apr 2020

 Back in 2010, EU Member State leaders agreed to invest three percent of the bloc’s GDP in research and innovation. Ten years later, Members States have shamelessly failed to reach this target.

The current EU programme for research, development and innovation, Horizon 2020, worth about €77bn, is Europe’s main tool for achieving this.

Yet, we saw the European Commission propose less than ten percent for its successor, Horizon Europe.


At the same time, new priorities have been presented by the new Commission. So, how will Horizon Europe fi t into this new landscape?

Given its limited funding, Horizon Europe will require a more complex rebalancing of its priorities than its predecessor. The next Programme will have three pillars.

The first will fund excellence in science and reinforce EU scientific leadership through the European Research Council (ERC).

“Research and innovation are key to boosting the competitiveness of our industries and need to be at the heart of the EU’s Industrial Strategy”

The second will boost industrial competitiveness and address Europe’s most pressing societal challenges. This will include the fight against cancer, mitigating climate change, developing low-carbon transport and more sustainable agriculture, to name a few of its priorities.

The second pillar will also focus on enabling technologies in areas where Europe still holds a significant competitive advantage compared to its Asian or American competitors, such as quantum computing and photonics, and in areas where it needs to catch up, such as AI.

The third pillar, one of the key novelties of the future Programme, will focus on stimulating, scaling up and deploying disruptive and market-creating innovations.

All three pillars are essential for Europe’s social and economic prosperity. Therefore, if Members States want to cut the programme’s budget, they will also need to point out which areas they would like to see funding reduced.

When taking office, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined new priorities for Europe, including a climate strategy, the European Green Deal and broad lines for a revamped industrial strategy.

“If Europe does not set its funding priorities right, our research base will shrink, and we shall fail to reach our targets”

The European Green Deal sets out highly ambitions targets, such as increasing the EU’s greenhouse gas emission reductions target for 2030 to at least 50 percent and towards 55 percent compared with 1990 levels.

The ultimate aim is to make Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050. This will require a coordinated approach between policies and Commissioners, changing the way we produce, trade and consume as well as unprecedented technological transformations.

But, most importantly, it will require money. Looking at the EU programmes at hand, Horizon Europe is by far the best tool we have to achieve our climate goals. Research into greener fuels, cleaner industries, zero waste, critical materials, greening ICT or decarbonisation of energy systems is widely covered by the Programme.

If Horizon Europe is not given considerable support, then the Commission and Member States will simply fail to reach these ambitions. In order to be successful, energy and climate policies need to go hand in hand with industrial policies.

Today, Horizon 2020 fosters the most relevant long-term Union partnerships with industry. These bring together large companies and SMEs in sustainable cooperation with universities and research organisations.

Currently, there are over 40 public-private partnerships being supported with a few billion euros from industry. Topics include clean aviation, smart cities, clean hydrogen, better supply of raw materials and zero emission road transport.

These partnerships could help Europe develop its first long-distance electric airplane or first ever CO2-free steel plant. Research and innovation are key to boosting the competitiveness of our industries and need to be at the heart of the EU’s Industrial Strategy.

One of the major strengths of the EU’s research programmes is their capacity to support excellent fundamental research. Europe still excels in creating knowledge in all disciplines of research due to the success of the European Research Council.

This is one of the Union’s crown jewels and should not be undermined by increasingly industry-centred policies. Europe needs basic research today and will also need it tomorrow. The importance of research and innovation in achieving our energy, climate and digital goals are undeniable. Horizon Europe is, and will remain, the largest EU instrument at hand.

Yet we still lack funding needed to scale up the Programme. We need to increase its low success rates and to achieve the three percent target outlined in 2010. If Europe does not set its funding priorities correctly, our research base will shrink, and we shall fail to reach our targets.

Bluntly speaking, it is time Member States heard the urgent call from the Parliament and put their money where their mouth is.

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