Horizon 2020 ready for lift off

By Laura Greenhalgh

After months of uncertainty, policymakers have finally agreed the details of the next EU research programme from 2014 to 2020.

National ministers have emerged victorious on the contentious issue of the Horizon 2020 funding model, pushing through their plans for participants to be funded through a flat-rate system—to the disappointment of many academics. But the European Parliament has recorded success in other areas, securing provisions for small and medium-sized enterprises and measures to widen participation.

The announcement came yesterday (25 June), when representatives from the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament and the European Commission sealed a deal in trilogue after six months of negotiations.

Sources have confirmed that negotiators agreed on a funding model that will pay 100 per cent of direct costs, plus an additional 25 per cent on top to cover overheads—meaning there will be no option for indirect costs to be paid on a full-cost basis.

This is a blow for the Parliament, as well as groups such as the European University Association and the European Association for Research and Technology Organisations, which have campaigned hard for a full-cost option to be retained.

But the Council’s position that this was a red line for ministers remained true in the final stages of discussions, with the Irish presidency refusing to consider a compromise despite significant pressure from MEPs, said a Brussels source. The Commission’s promise to develop guidelines for the transfer of indirect costs to direct costs for large infrastructures was instrumental in finalising the decision, said the source. 

MEPs have made their disappointment on this decision clear. “I regret that the Parliament had to consent to a funding model which departs completely from full-cost accounting, making EU research funding less efficient, less transparent and hindering the development of modern accounting in Europe's research landscape,” said German MEP Christian Ehler from the European People’s Party, lead negotiator on the rules for participation .

Green MEP Philippe Lamberts said the decision to fund all participants in this way would significantly reduce the leverage effect of the programme, resulting in “a lower return on investment per euro” than the funding model proposed by the Parliament. Paying large businesses 125 per cent of their direct costs is “actually giving them money that they should spend themselves,” said another source.

But despite MEPs’ disappointment with the funding model, the Council’s stance gave the Parliament the opportunity to push through other things on its agenda. “The fact that they wouldn’t move on the funding model was the leverage for us to get them to move on everything else we wanted—which they did, more or less,” said a Brussels source.

This included an earmarked budget for the proposed SME instrument, to fund innovation projects led by small businesses, which will receive around 4 per cent of the overall Horizon 2020 budget. Whilst MEPs could not get ministers to agree to a binding target for SME participation, they pushed through an indicative target of 20 per cent of the budget for the second and third pillars.

The Parliament was successful in its suggestion for a novel Horizon 2020 instrument called Fast Track to Innovation. This bottom-up system is intended to allow submissions from any type of participant from any area of technology at any time, with a shorter time-to-grant, to boost innovative R&D.

The general time-to-grant for the whole programme will be reduced, according to the agreement, to a maximum of 8 months compared to 12 months for Framework 7. Horizon 2020 will also include provisions to improve the acceptance of beneficiaries’ usual accounting practices and reduce the administrative burden for participants compared to Framework 7, said negotiators.

The agreement also confirmed plans to make it mandatory to provide open access to scientific publications, the first time this has been a requirement for research supported by the EU framework programme, as well as measures to support female and young researchers.

The EU commissioner for research, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn welcomed the agreement as “a very important step that will help ensure that Horizon 2020 can launch as planned next year”.

“That is good news for researchers, for universities, for SMEs, and for all other future participants in the programme,” she said. Observers had previously expressed fears that failure to reach and agreement under the Irish presidency of the Council of Ministers would result in a significant delay to the start of the programme in 2014.

Sources have confirmed the Horizon 2020 budget will stand at €70.2bn—but that official sign off on this figure is awaiting an agreement on the overall seven-year framework for the EU, under the multiannual financial framework. This now appears the only threat that could delay the start of the programme, if a budget agreement is not reached in time.

Following yesterday’s agreement on the programme, the legislative texts must now pass through a committee of permanent representatives (Coreper) from the Council, as well as the European Parliament’s committee on Industry, Research and Energy in July. The Parliament is expected to vote on the proposal in plenary in September.

This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.

Not yet a subscriber?

Learn more about the benefits of a subscription

Try for free