In the 2018-2020 round of Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (Horizon 2020), the EU Commission (EC) plans to drive innovation in the fields of low-carbon economy, digitalization, circular economy and security. These four new Focus Areas of Horizon 2020 have been revealed in the so called Scoping Papers, published by the EC in January 2017. The content outlined in the papers is preliminary, but will ultimately lead to the launch of the 2018-2020 funding round, with first calls for proposals being published around October 2017. The years 2018-2020 mark the last phase of Horizon 2020, which will be replaced by a new Framework Programme from 2021 on (known under the working title FP9). The EC documents already sketch out the strategic directions expected to be continued in FP9. This insight piece gives you an overview of the Overall trends for 2018-2020 and beyond.

Key Trends

  1. Continued challenge-based approach to research and innovation. The EU Commission confirms that the open, challenge-based approach of Horizon 2020 has gained praise among many stakeholders. It is based on the idea of asking the innovation community to solve a particular issue without prescribing the means to do so. Advantages of this setup include encouraging cross-disciplinary cooperation and pooling of resources. This approach will be stepped-up in 2018-2020 by proposing even bigger, mission-oriented calls offering large impact.

As part of this trend, a more important role will be played by social sciences and humanities (SSH). So far considered a stepchild of Horizon 2020 research, SSH researchers are expected to be involved also in “purely technological” projects, helping to assess the potential impacts (and risks) of technological development on society.

  1. Higher impact by stronger alignment in call timing and encouraging synergies between ongoing projects. A new instrument to achieve higher impact are so called Focus areas. These will be horizontal themes of particular importance to Europe, cross-linking topics in different parts of Horizon 2020. Four Focus areas – to be endowed with significant budget – have been proposed:
  • Low-carbon, climate resilient future
  • Digitising European industry and services
  • Circular economy
  • Boosting the effectiveness of the Security Union

The last Focus area indicates the EU’s raising interest in funding security research, dictated by the geopolitical instability around Europe’s borders, but also internal security threats. Although the EU Commission mentions civil research only, an implicit link to the planned establishment of an EU Defence Research Fund is present.

  1. Dealing with oversubscription. The authors admit that large oversubscription, partially leading to success rates far below 10% in certain parts of Horizon 2020, is a challenge. A broader deployment of two-stage application processes is expected to leave only a handful of the most promising projects in the funding race after stage one, thus sparing everybody else the effort to prepare large and detailed funding applications. Another idea to deal with oversubscription is a clearer definition of expected project impacts in calls for proposals.

Interestingly, the EU Commission documents do not mention the Seal of Excellence – an EU pilot initiative to promote Horizon 2020 projects receiving excellent scores from the evaluators, but still not making it to get funded from the EU budget. The Seal of Excellence was meant to encourage national funding authorities to support these projects by offering domestic funds. The results have so far been mixed. It remains to be seen if and how the Seal of Excellence will find its way into the upcoming funding round.

  1. Leveraging market-creating innovation. Many industries currently considered as strengths of the EU economy may soon be disrupted by new business models and trends such as digitization. The EU Commission aims at strengthening Europe’s potential to capture new markets by creating more innovation-friendly framework conditions. Proposed ideas for the 2018-2020 Work Programme include further strengthening the holistic approach to innovation funding, with more focus on non-technological innovation, regulatory requirements and market demand. New instruments such as the European Innovation Council (EIC) and inducement prizes, a thematic opening of existing instruments such as SME Instrument and more innovation support from experts, all aim at achieving this goal.

The creation of more innovation-friendly conditions and the continued departure from purely technology-focused EU projects is the right direction, helping European SMEs to bridge the “valley of death” between technological development and market entry. However, many of the proposed initiatives are still in their infancy (e.g. EIC) so it remains to be seen how the EU will turn them into a comprehensive framework, hopefully contributing to the creation a European Google or Amazon.

  1. Encouraging international cooperation. Despite efforts to increase third party participation in Horizon 2020 as compared to its predecessor, the 7th Framework Programme, the number of non-EU entities participating in the programme has in fact dropped. This was partially a result of certain 3rd countries no longer automatically receiving EU funding (e.g. China, India, Brazil, Russia). The EU Commission is interested in reversing this trend in 2018-2020 by setting-up international flagship initiatives of mutual interest. It can be expected that more bilateral agreements between the EU and selected 3rd country funding authorities will be signed to allow entities from these countries to receive funding for Horizon 2020 participation.  

However, the example of relatively low U.S. participation in Horizon 2020 shows that access to funding is not everything. Despite being automatically eligible for receiving EU funding for “Health” projects, many U.S. entities did not participate due to regulatory obstacles, such as the prohibition to sign Grant Agreements subject to European law. Latest actions by EU Commission and the U.S. Government, such as the conclusion of a special US-EU Implementing Agreement, aim at addressing these issues, even though they do not remove all stumbling blocks. Perceiving 3rd country participation from a perspective broader than access to EU funds is key to attracting more excellent ideas and talent from outside of Europe.

Get in pole position

The Scoping Papers are preliminary documents, which will lead to a number of Work Programme Drafts. If you are interested in participating in the next Horizon 2020 round, get in touch with us, be kept apprised about the latest developments and put yourself in pole position for funding.