Eyes on the Horizon: New European Commission Sets out R&I Vision

With the launch of Horizon Europe just over a year away, the €94.1 billion successor to Horizon 2020 is starting to take shape. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nomination of Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel to succeed Research, Science and Innovation Commissioner Carlos Moedas from 1 November 2019.

The current Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Gabriel has been nominated by incoming European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, to take charge of the new ‘Innovation and Youth’ portfolio for the 2019–2024 period. This will combine the current research, innovation and science brief with outgoing Commissioner Tibor Navracsics’ responsibility for education, culture and sport. The announcement of this revised and expanded portfolio has sparked speculation regarding the level of support for research from the incoming Commission.

On 10 September, von der Leyen set out her vision for the new Innovation and Youth portfolio in a mission letter to Mariya Gabriel calling on the Commissioner-delegate to ‘ensure that education, research and innovation help us deliver on our ambitions and wider objectives’. Gabriel will be responsible for the full implementation of Horizon Europe, including building ‘a true European Research Area’ to pull together all national and European efforts. She will ensure investment for disruptive research and breakthrough innovations, notably through the European Innovation Council. The new portfolio also includes supporting the objective of tripling the Erasmus+ programme as part of the next EU budget; leading work on making the European Education Area a reality by 2025; and promoting excellence and networking among European universities.

Gabriel will work under the guidance of the new Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age in matters relating to research and innovation, and the new Vice-President for Protecting our European Way of Life in matters relating to education, culture, youth and sports.

On the same day as his successor was announced, Carlos Moedas expressed frustration about his time as Commissioner, tweeting: ‘Now that we are about to have a new @EU_Commission, the truth is that nobody was talking about or interested by the next R&D Commissioner. In the last 5 years, I really tried to put this portfolio on the map. We have still a long way to go.’

Reaction to the new portfolio from the research community has been mixed, particularly as von der Leyen’s mission letter does not reference the European Research Council, which has a budget of €13.1 billion over the life of Horizon 2020. ‘I’m rather concerned with “research” dropping from the portfolio name of our Commissioner,’ said Maud Evrard, Head of Policy Affairs at Science Europe, an association of research organisations based in Brussels. By contrast, Robert-Jan Smits, President of the Eindhoven University of Technology and former Director-General of Research and Innovation at the Commission argued that the combined portfolios will give education, research and innovation more ‘weight and visibility’.

Christian Ehler, long-standing member of the European Parliament’s Committee for Industry, Research and Energy, and one of two lead draftsmen on the Horizon Europe legislation, supported the move, saying: ‘Pooling resources for basic and applied research, innovation and education is a very plausible thing to do.’ Ehler also dismissed any concerns about Gabriel taking on the portfolio, stating: ‘It’s the best portfolio we could imagine, integrating everything we care about, and Gabriel was my number one pick in the lottery. With her political experience and leverage in the Commission she’s really a godsend.’ The MEP also pledged to ‘make sure research gets the same support as it has always done’.

The mission letter sets out how research, policy and economic priorities will go hand in hand for the new Commission. Commissioners across the entire range of EU policies will be expected to work together, contributing to the Commission’s new industrial strategy and making the most of the new thematic missions within Horizon Europe: Adaptation to Climate Change including Societal Transformation; Cancer; Healthy Oceans, Seas, Coastal and Inland Waters; Climate-neutral and Smart Cities; and Soil Health and Food.

Described as ‘creating something that will make people on the street talk about science’ by Carlos Moedas, the missions are intended to boost the impact of EU-funded research and innovation by having ‘ambitious, measurable and time-bound goals’ around issues that affect citizens’ daily lives.

Pending confirmation of the new Commissioners, a series of consultations have been launched to help shape the development of Horizon Europe. EU Research and Innovation (R&I) stakeholders and citizens have until 6 November to express their views on the 12 proposed Institutionalised European Partnerships under Horizon Europe, which will take a more impact-focused approach to partnership working.

The proposed partnerships cover the following topics:

EU-Africa research partnership on health security to tackle infectious diseases.

Innovative Health Initiative.

Key Digital Technologies.

Smart Networks and Services.

European Metrology.

Transforming Europe’s rail system.

Integrated Air Traffic Management.

Clean Aviation.

Circular bio-based Europe.

Clean Hydrogen.

Safe and Automated Road Transport.

Innovative SMEs.

Horizon Europe will support these partnerships to address common priorities jointly with Member States, the private sector, foundations and other stakeholders. The aim is to deliver on global challenges and industrial modernisation through what the Commission describes as ‘concerted research and innovation efforts’.

The Commission believes that a consolidated and rationalised number of partnerships will avoid overlaps and duplication and be better aligned with its policy priorities for 2019–2024. Whether these proposed partnerships will go ahead as part of Horizon Europe is still subject to a corresponding impact assessment that the public consultation exercise will feed into.

Horizon Europe’s implementation strategy is expected to be finalised at the end of 2019, timed to coincide with the adoption of Horizon Europe’s Strategic Plan. However, the long and often bumpy road to Horizon 2020 should serve as a note of caution. On 16 September, a Joint Statement for an Ambitious Horizon Europe Programme signed by 93 European research and innovation associations called on the EU to support a budget increase for Horizon Europe from €94 billion to €120 billion, of which at least 60% should be dedicated to the Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness pillar.

While this intervention echoes earlier calls from the European Parliament for a higher research budget, such a hike would place R&I associations at odds not only with a higher education sector also seeking increased investment for their own elements of Horizon Europe, but with a multitude of other stakeholders keen to secure additional funding for their priorities.

If, as expected, Mariya Gabriel’s new status is confirmed by the European Council and she takes office on 1 November, only 14 months will remain until the launch of Horizon Europe. The first priority for the new Commissioner for Innovation and Youth will be to manage the expectations of the entire European research sector while focusing on an ever-narrowing horizon to 2021.