The EU needs a strong research and innovation investment pipeline to support its digital transformation

Over the last year, we have seen how crucial research and innovation are to tackling the EU’s fundamental challenges and for preparing us for the future, writes Jean-Eric Paquet.

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By Jean-Eric Paquet

Jean-Eric Paquet is Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Research and Innovation

11 Nov 2020

Research and innovation are critical to strengthening the resilience of Europe’s societies and economies and for supporting our global technological competitiveness.

We need a strong pipeline of research and innovation investments to support Europe’s recovery and its green and digital transformation.

The challenges are great and many: accelerating Europe’s transformation through the European Green Deal, including the commitment to climate neutrality by 2050; making Europe fit for the digital age and creating an economy that works for people.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated how important it is to cooperate in research and innovation in order to quickly respond to society’s most pressing needs”

Research and innovation are the key to tackling them all. The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated how important it is to cooperate in research and innovation in order to quickly respond to society’s most pressing needs. The Commission took action at the very outset of the outbreak, investing in urgently needed research and innovation and coordinating European and global research efforts.

We mobilised funding from Horizon 2020 to advance our knowledge on this novel virus, to develop tests, to research treatments and vaccines and to improve our clinical management of patients as well as public health responses.

By the end of the year, we will have invested over €1bn as part of the Coronavirus Global Response initiative. Through the ERAvsCorona Action Plan, we have been coordinating research and innovation e­ orts with national administrations.

We are continuing with additional research and support actions, including supporting infrastructures and data resources that enable decisive research. The decisive EU research and innovation response to the crisis is an example of what we can achieve, given the right resources. In 2018, the Commission put forward a proposal for the next EU budget that was both ambitious and realistic.

The budget proposed for the new programme, Horizon Europe, and the additional allocation from Next Generation EU, demonstrated the importance that the Commission places on research and innovation. Unfortunately, this programme now faces substantial cuts, proposed by the European Council. This is regrettable.

It is true the MFF negotiations were never going to be easy, starting as they did with a hole of €70bn left by the UK’s departure. Yet with clear evidence of how research and innovation could drive transitions, and the support of the European Parliament, we were hopeful that Horizon Europe would provide a real boost to research and innovation in the EU.

Both Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Commissioner Mariya Gabriel have expressed their disappointment that this reduced budget does not meet the ambitions or the challenges that Europe faces.

Of course, we await the final outcome of the negotiations between the Member States and the European Parliament, which has demanded that additional money is found for Horizon Europe and other key programmes.

Nevertheless, there is still an increase compared to Horizon 2020: 24 percent compared to Horizon 2020 in current prices and over nine percent in 2018 constant prices.

This is for a European Union with 27 Member States, and the 28th - the UK - was a major beneficiary of Horizon 2020. Even if it not as large as we would wish, it is a considerable budget, and we have a responsibility to spend it well.

There are several new features in Horizon Europe, and several developments outside of it, that will boost the impact of EU research and innovation. In Horizon Europe, a new wave of European partnerships will ensure long-term strategic cooperation between public and private actors covering critical areas such as energy, transport, biodiversity, health, food and circularity.

The proposed EU missions will tackle some of our most pressing societal challenges, such as adaptation to climate change, saving more lives from cancer, restoring our oceans and waters, greening cities and cultivating healthier soils. And what’s more, we are co-designing the programme together with researchers, businesses, decision makers and the people.

 “We need a strong pipeline of research and innovation investments to support Europe’s recovery and its green and digital transformation”

Our strategic planning process has included a series of unprecedented co-creation activities (more than 10,000 contributions in writing since June 2019) involving the European Parliament, our stakeholders as well as citizens. In parallel to the new programme, we will relaunch the European Research Area.

Through it, we will join forces with all EU countries to prioritise investment and reforms in research and innovation, improve access to excellence for researchers across Europe and ensure results find their way to the market. In addition, the new Recovery and Resilience Facility will aim to ensure that we fully exploit the potential of research and innovation in our economic recovery as well as in making our economies and societies more resilient. We cannot achieve the large-scale transformations of our socio-economic systems without giving a central role to research and innovation.

Throughout the past year, we have all seen the crucial role that research and innovation play in our lives, and what we can achieve if we focus our efforts. Despite the disappointing cuts proposed for the Horizon Europe budget, I am looking forward to seeing the essential contribution of research and innovation in tackling Europe’s fundamental challenges and making us better prepared for the future.