EESC urges the EC to increase the budget for financing R&I in Europe

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Today the findings of the stakeholder consultation carried out by the EC in view of the mid-term evaluation of Horizon 2020 were revealed publicly for the first time at a joint event organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD).

The event was also an opportunity to compare these results with those of the recent EESC Information report, drawn up for the Commission by rapporteur Gonçalo Lobo Xavier (EESC Vice-president from the Employers' Group – PT) and the Opinion drawn up by rapporteur Ulrich Samm (Employers' Group – DE), both on the same topic.

The outstanding rate of stakeholder participation - 3483 responses and 295 position papers compared to only 200 responses on the ex-post evaluation of FP7 - has made this consultation particularly meaningful.

EESC Vice-President Gonçalo Lobo Xavier in his opening speech said: "we welcome this initiative from the EC because this programme is very important for our future and the future of the next generations, and because the EESC has been very much engaged in this process of evaluating and giving feedback on the programme's successes and, most importantly, on the improvements that need to be made."

The main conclusion of the conference was that Horizon 2020 is a successful innovation programme that brings together excellence, joint research infrastructures, collaboration across borders as well as synergies between academia, industry, SMEs and research organisations, but it is absolutely crucial to increase the budget for financing research and innovation at EU level and to widen participation, but not at expense of excellence – a view shared by 89% of respondents.

The EC consultation gave a clearly positive feedback, with 78% of participants stating that they were 'satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with the programme, which gave them access to otherwise inaccessible financial support and to new knowledge and know-how. Respondents also valued the programme's unique opportunities for cooperation with partners from other countries and said it helped improve excellence in Research & Innovation and strengthen interdisciplinary work.

On a less positive note, 24% of respondents said they did not participate in H2020 due to the low success rates for applicants, limited resources to draw up proposals, lack of relevant areas/topics, difficulties in finding project partners and too cumbersome implementation rules. In addition, 34% of respondents judged the quality of feedback from evaluations as 'poor' or 'very poor' and more than 50% found that the programme's priorities did not address citizens’ real needs. Underfinancing was also one of the most commonly quoted issues of Horizon 2020.

Ulrich Samm, on the financing subject, added that: "the biggest problem we observed were the huge disparities in Europe. We have very different success participation rates in H2020 and there is a very clear correlation with the national funding. Those member states who had a stronger national funding were more successful, and those with smaller national funding, were less successful. That is why Member States must reinforce their budget in research an innovation." 

Kurt Vandenberghe, Director of Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD), said that: "H2020 is nothing without the stakeholders' active participation, the role of the EC and the European institutions is to provide the resources, the framework and the rules of the game. But it is you who play the game... because one thing is clear, if you want to have a future for Europe -  a prosperous, sustainable future - then we need you, researchers and innovators, to be successful."

In its mid-term evaluation, the EESC conducted fact-finding missions to 8 EU countries to seek civil society's views on the programme. The conclusions were similar to those of the EC, but the EESC also noted that:

·         Maintaining science and Research & Innovation (R&I) skills in the future will require continued support for the education system to boost social awareness of science and innovation activities.

·         Increasing the budget of Horizon2020 'per se' would not be helpful for Member States that are still in need of structural changes, where the basic funding of R&I needs to be improved before more emphasis can be put on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

·         Many small, but very important, projects seem to be lost as a result of the Commission's option to fund fewer but bigger projects, probably due to organisational and human resources constraints. The Commission must deal with this challenge by reinforcing its teams to have a more effective approach.

The level of awareness of the programme also seems to vary across Member States. That is why the EESC urged the European Commission to:

·         undertake information initiatives at European, national, regional and local level;

·         encourage supranational networks and closer cooperation between clusters (such as collaborative research);

·         publish best practices when applying for H2020;

·         re-examine the criteria for the selection of evaluators and look for candidates that have a more interdisciplinary profile;

·         impose on evaluators the obligation to give reasoned feedback to the applicants;

increase support for practical research groups (theoretical research groups are much stronger).