2017 marks the mid-term of Horizon 2020 – the EU‘s largest research and innovation program equipped with almost € 80 bn. By running for three and a half years out of seven, the program already attracted more applications than its predecessor, the 7th Framework Programme, ever did. The popularity of Horizon 2020 is on the one hand a cause for celebration, especially among its architects at the EU Commission (EC). On the other hand, its low success rates and large oversubscription initiated a debate on the need to change. Critics argue that the program cannot continue with ‘business as usual’ for the remaining 3.5 years.

The EC took the opportunity to conduct an interim evaluation of Horizon 2020. As part of this exercise, an online stakeholder consultation has been organised between October 2016 and January 2017. Its results were presented on April 28th in Brussels.

Five Takeaways

Almost 3.500 responses from 65 countries have been collected, showing a significant interest in the program beyond EU borders. Interestingly, among organisations participating in the survey, the biggest group have been businesses, two-thirds of which being small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Research organisations, academia, public authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) follow. The large consultation response rate by businesses may indicate the importance the latter attach to Horizon 2020 – also as a tool for shaping their future. This is an important signal sent by the European business community. It proves wrong some of the initial worries on Horizon 2020 being too bureaucratic and not enough industry-friendly.

Overall, the responses can be clustered as five takeaways for the EC on Horizon 2020:

  • Relevance: the program is perceived as relevant for tackling current societal challenges and the use of collaborative grants for this purpose is perceived positively. However, the funding process is too complex and lengthy.
  • Effectiveness: Horizon 2020 performs well in terms of addressing excellence and policy objectives, but it is not doing enough for boosting industrial leadership and achieving societal impact.
  • Efficiency and use of resources: there is a clear need for an increased budget for financing research and innovation at EU level – the most obvious reason for this being the high Horizon 2020 oversubscription. On project level, the cost of participation is lower as compared to predecessor programs, but the administrative burden is still high, leading to many potential applicants refraining from participation.
  • Coherence: combining different forms of support within one program makes sense, although further simplification in the identification of funding opportunities is welcome.
  • EU Added Value: Horizon 2020 has a higher value added than national funding, particularly due to the international cooperation aspects.

What Happens Next?

The online stakeholder consultation results will feed into the overall Horizon 2020 interim evaluation, which is currently conducted by the EC with the help of two Expert Groups. The final interim evaluation results are expected to be published in October 2017, followed by the EC’s proposal for the Horizon 2020 follow-up program, expected in 2018.

The lessons learned from the Horizon 2020 interim evaluation are mainly aimed at providing input into preparations of the post-Horizon 2020 program. Whether they can still impact the second half of Horizon 2020 running time, remains to be seen.

It is clear that certain points from the above-mentioned wish-list cannot be implemented in Horizon 2020 due to legal or budgetary constraints. However, the EC has shown creativity in finding ad hoc solutions to Horizon 2020 weaknesses in the past. One example is the Seal of Excellence for SMEs. It allows SMEs who scored well in an oversubscribed Horizon 2020 application, but didn’t receive funding from the EU, to ask for national funding without having to submit a large application. It is true that the Seal of Excellence is a partial success, namely in EU Member States willing and able to provide national funding. But is it an important attempt by the EC to directly react to problems flagged by Horizon 2020 participants. There is hope that the limitations raised in the stakeholder consultations can be attempted before 2020, and not only after Horizon 2020 comes to an end. The remaining ~€ 40 billion left in the program’s budget for 2018-2020 are worth that effort.

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