EuroChat – from our man our man in Brussels, Tim Reynolds

6th April 2014

EU research got an early Christmas present with the official launch of Horizon 2020 at the end of 2013. Horizon 2020 is the next EU research and innovation framework programme worth some €80 billion over the next seven year. And the calls for the first phase of the programme are already out.

So there is a buzz of brokerage activity going on all over Europe – and in Brussels in particular – as project partners are brought together, ideas for research and innovation activities are refined and funding applications filled in.

Of course “you have to be in it to win it” and many players have been working on Horizon 2020 ideas for years. Major parts of the programme on industrial competitiveness emerged from the discussions on Key Enabling Technologies and a handful of new Public-Private-Partnerships have been set up, such as the SPIRE PPP on resource and energy efficiency, which have already been allocated a budget of a few billion euros.

A key element of Horizon 2020 is simplification. And to achieve this goal the European Commission is reorganising its DG Research and Innovation. The DG is moving to a more “trust-based approach” in the management of its projects and away (here’s hoping) from the micro-management of projects that has typified previous programmes. And to do this the Commission is separating the machinery of grant management from its policy making activities.

The Research Directorate-General currently has around 1800 staff and it is likely to cut head count by one-third by 2020 with the remaining staff focusing on policy issues such as the Innovation Union, with its initiatives to create a unitary patent, speed up standardisation and develop innovative public procurement and completion of the European Research Area (ERA).

To handle the grant management side four agencies will deal with Horizon 2020. The biggest is the Research Executive Agency (REA), then there is the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA) for frontier science grants, the Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA) for transport, energy and broadband network grants, and the Executive Agency for Small & Medium Sized Enterprises (EASME) that will handle grants for new funding programmes for small and medium enterprises and support programmes for sustainability, climate change and environmental protection.

It is claimed that the single focus of these agencies will ensure greater efficiency but to make sure a coherent interpretation of procedures is applied across Horizon 2020, a Common Support Centre has also been set up that will be part of DG Research and Innovation. It seems to me that there is still plenty of scope for confusion and empire building inherent in this new scheme!

Greeks not bearing gifts
Since 1st January the Greeks have been in the chair of the European Council. As one might hope for a nation that is technically bankrupt, the Greek presidency has not been marked by the usual welter of ties, scarves, trinkets, local produce and other novelty gifts that usually grace the start of these six-month sojourns as administrators of the ‘European project’.

The arrival of the Greeks coincided with new catering arrangements in the Commission that have not gone down well with the worker bees. Prices are up and (it seems) quality is down. Even worse the coffee in the press room at the main Berlaymont building has been changed from the ever reliable Italian illy® brand to something described by a senior EU official as “some Dutch sh*t”. And the price of tea has doubled – clearly the ‘Brexit’ (local shorthand for the anticipated exit of the UK from the European Union) is one step closer!

Well it looked hopeful at one time, but the concept of the EU Science Media Centre (SMC) has been hit on the head for the time being. The reasons for this are not completely clear to me but it is fair to say that the original enthusiasts for the project have now decided to drop it. My view is that some stakeholders (apologies for deploying that overused word) had an idea of what a EU SMC should do, but that turned out not to be what is needed (from the perspective of EU media and science communicators) nor what existing SMCs (for example the great and glorious UK SMC) actually do. The need for independence from the Commission, the size and complexity of what it might need to cover and, therefore, the need to focus on certain priority issues all caused issues that could not be easily solved.

In my view there is a role for some sort of coordination body for science communication and media activities at a European level that can spread best practise. Establishing exactly what that ‘thing’ might be is clearly not an easy task. Perhaps a first step might be a scoping project? Funding for such a project should be available through Horizon 2020.

A bientôt


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