Off in the Distance: Horizon Europe and Why you Should Care

Like many people, I often avoid exposing myself to politics.

Political discourse has, amidst the rise of Populism, become highly polarized. Reading heated debate between the so-called left and right is extremely draining and an unnecessary demand on my sanity as I survive life as a researcher. Where the topic of political discussion is more neutral, it is easy to swap anger for ambivalence. Organisations and initiatives can have confusing terminology and concepts seem more abstract.

More often than not, I stop reading and do something else.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

So when I first read about Horizon Europe, the European Commission’s research and innovation programme for 2021-2027, I was initially indifferent. To me, it simply amounted to some Brussels-based bigwigs deciding how many zeros to put at the end of the budget figure for the next few years’ European funding. Jargon like ‘pillars’ and ‘innovation ecosystems’ seemed a little meaningless and hard to identify in my everyday research existence. However, after paying attention to it for the last few months, I have come to realise quite how important Horizon Europe really is, and how much it will influence both our research careers and the very nature of the society in which we live.

The budget reaches far

EU member states use a proportion of their gross domestic product (GDP) to fund research and development (R&D). What we may not realise is that EU funds are then added to the national contribution, which means each country now has a little more capital with which to finance R&D. The Swedish budget for research and higher education, for example, contains 4,4% contribution from the EU (orange slice, below).

The role of external funding in Swedish higher education research (2019 report, Vetenskapsrådet).

This figure is not particularly large, because Sweden has a proportionally greater R&D budget already amongst other EU member states. Essentially, it funds research well without European contributions. However, that 4,4% is still a huge amount of money and provides equipment, infrastructure and most importantly, careers, to both public and private sector research.

Horizon Europe’s budget is (supposedly) an increase on its predecessor Horizon 2020, but it’s unclear if the actual percentage will stay the same in Sweden. Given the increased focus of European and Swedish money on COVID-19 research in recent times, non-virologists can only cross their fingers and hope they can still find funding in the future to pursue their research with [1].

Indispensable for early career researcher (ECR)s

From the moment you step foot in a university, to the latter years of a professorship, EU money is both vital and highly desirable. For some, the Erasmus+ program was the first taste of life in another European country, and showed us how education and research work outside of our home nation. The Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MSCA) Individual Fellowships are considered the pinnacle of postdoc training and propel many towards research independence. Introduced relatively recently, MSCA now funds illustrious joint PhD positions that allow doctoral candidates to work in both academic and industrial/public settings. Finally, the European Research Council (ERC) offers some of the most impressive project and infrastructure funding on the continent. Starting-, Consolidator- and Advanced Grants provide between €1.5-2.5 million each, giving principal investigators the funding needed to start or maintain their research programme.

It is therefore worrisome that, at the time of writing, the EU Council has hacked another €5 billion off the Horizon Europe budget. What started as a proposed sum of €120 billion is now only a fraction of that. The cuts are expected to impact particularly on MSCA and the ERC, and will spread the money thinner for aspiring ECRs and their research questions.

Societal impact is paramount

Academia is slowly shifting its focus from journal impact factors to real world-relevance, and Horizon Europe is part of this trend. One of those ambiguous ‘pillars’ I mentioned earlier shows the major R&D targets for the 2021-2027 period (see Pillar 2 below, middle):

Horizon Europe overall structure.

Don’t worry. You aren’t expected to suddenly switch your research to coronaviruses, climate change or computation. Instead, switch your thinking towards how you can make your research impactful in a non-academic sense. Your findings need to be implementable, otherwise you risk failure via the old adage:

Knowledge is power only if you know how to use it.

Consider how you might commercialise your research, or how your findings could influence health policy (relevant at my medical university). Karolinska Institutet, for example, has an Innovations Office where you can take even the simplest idea and see where it might lead. The entrepreneurial and communication skills you gain from this experience will enhance your CV significantly, and demonstrate your pragmatism to future employers. Finally, you will be supporting Horizon Europe’s mission and genuinely helping tackle a local or global challenge.

Next steps

For me, Horizon Europe has been somewhat eye-opening. Aside from learning about the budget, politicians and grants, it helped me learn more about how the lumbering research behemoth is steered towards fixing the world. And whilst this task is far from straightforward, some self-reflection on the purpose of our research might get us there a little quicker.

[1] It is important to note that COVID-19-related research is not exclusively dedicated to virology or public health. Many important and interdisciplinary projects aim to mitigate the socioeconomic damage caused by the pandemic.

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