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Bartosz Paszcza  10 października 2019

The EU is preparing an innovative leap forward, which Poland may not take advantage of

Bartosz Paszcza  10 października 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 11 min

The European Commission has published its proposal for the Horizon Europe research and innovation funding framework program. The proposed amount, i.e. EUR 107 billion, is record-breaking, but after deducting British contributions and taking inflation into account – the budget for research alone turns out to be only slightly larger than the previous one. A new feature involves concentrating some resources on the six major social challenges. Although the EU’s desire to “leap forward” in science should please us, it is hard to look for positives from the perspective of the Polish economy. After all, Poland is the worst in Europe in obtaining European funds for research per PLN paid into the budget.

The proposed budget of the Horizon Europe program for 2021-2027    is 107 billion euros, which is 8% of the seven-year EU budget. Compared to the previous perspective, the share of research and development expenditure is increasing at the expense of the Cohesion Fund and the Agricultural Fund, i.e. funds whose largest beneficiary is Poland. Unlike the Horizon program, where we have been at the very tail end for many years. However, it is hard to blame other EU countries for the fact that research funding occupies as low place on the Polish politicians’ priority list as Izolator Boguchwała in the ranking of Polish football clubs.

How does European science funding work?

European research funding programs have a relatively short history. The funds allocated for this purpose did not exceed EUR 20 billion until the middle of the first decade of the 21st century. The establishment of the European Research Council (ERC) and increasing the budget to EUR 50 billion in the Multiannual Financial Framework 2007-2013 was a breakthrough. The Horizon 2020 research funding program, ending next year, is also record-breaking, with € 75 billion spent.

The most recent Horizon Europe program, which is to operate in the years 2021-2027, has been broken down into four main areas: scientific, innovative, related to global challenges and competitiveness, and defense.

The scientific component largely consists of funds for the ERC, an institution providing grants to international scientific consortia and outstanding young scientists (EUR 25.8 billion in total), and the program under the name Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions existing since 1994 (it is worth appreciating the official change in the name, which before 2014 only contained the French surname of the Nobel laureate), supporting scientific mobility and the development of young scientists (EUR 6.8 billion).

EU research funds are attractive even to countries that invest a lot in research on their own. ERC grants are a highly reputable “seal of quality” for a scientist or a group, as getting them requires undergoing rigorous application and expert assessment. Moreover, the program places emphasis on international consortia of research groups from various institutions. According to Nature, Horizon 2020 funds accounted for approx. 10-15% of the total funds spent on research by all EU countries in the same time period.

A new component will be the European Innovation Council (EIC), whose task will be to support the development of scientific projects until the commercialization phase, as well as the development of innovative technologies in small and medium-sized businesses (the estimated budget is EUR 10.5 billion). The goal of this institution is to improve EU position in global competition with China and the USA.

The budget’s largest component (52.7 billion euros) will be the part related to global social challenges and economic competitiveness. This is a clear move towards mission-oriented policy, pushed e.g. by Marianna Mazzucato (see her suggestions in the book Entrepreneurial State). No wonder, her report commissioned by the European Commission was one of the foundations for creating a new framework program.

According to Mazzucato, the innovation policy must be based on solving specific problems, not on funding innovation in and of itself. This is how the famous DARPA came to be in the USA, which aims to create solutions for the needs of the armed forces, but with side effect such as e.g. the Siri assistant on Apple phones. The American space program has had a similar result. Thanks to NASA, we have, among others, miniaturized cameras (which we find in many smartphones today), scratch-resistant glasses or thermal blankets.

In line with this approach, creating innovations to solve specific engineering problems brings much better results than funding innovation in itself. Moreover, it makes it easier to explain to taxpayers their interest in funding research, and setting specific goals makes it easier to evaluate projects. More generally speaking, innovation becomes an element of social interest, not an art for art’s sake.

Five general missions were selected. The EU suggests focusing on: adaptation to the effects of global warming (including social transformations), cancer, the condition of the oceans, seas and inland waters, smart cities, and food and soil. Special expert councils shall appoint specific programs within this framework.

The last major component of the Horizon Europe program is EUR 13 billion for research and development in the European Defense Fund, created in 2017.

Theoretically high raise

Although the absolute budget increase seems impressive, after analyzing all the factors it does not look so splendid.  Analyst Peter Fisch has recalculated budgets once again, taking inflation into account.

It turns out that after converting the amounts into the value of money in 2018, the Horizon Europe budget proposal is only 8% higher than the final Horizon 2020 budget.

The reason, of course, is Brexit. After deducting the British share in the previous scientific budget, the current proposal becomes as much as 14% higher than the previously proposed budget (and 23% higher than the one adopted). However, it is hard not to notice that, in contrast to the European Commission’s press releases, increasing the budget does not mean Europe’s strategic focus on research and development. Just as it is difficult to do dirt cheap science in Poland, it will be difficult to cope with the five great social challenges by spending mere pennies.

The beneficiaries are the old EU and the smallest countries

Although increased funding for research and development at EU level is absolutely necessary if we, as a community, want to keep pace and catch up with the United States or China, the current mechanism of Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe leads to small countries in the community benefiting the most.

If we look at how much a particular country “recovers” from each euro paid to the Horizon 2020 budget, Poland holds the shameful status of the EU’s worst country. Together with Romania, we acquire in grants only 1/3 of the amounts we pay.

How much countries get for each 1 euro paid (Horizon2020 until June 2018); author’s own work based on data from www.peter-fisch.eu (Eurostat, CORDIS, 2015 EU Budget).

We are also the largest “net contributor” (after deducting funds received in grants) among the countries of the new Union. According to Peter Fisher, we have paid a net contribution of nearly 450 million euro to Horizon by 2017 (i.e. after deducting the grants received). Only France, Germany (almost EUR 1 billion) and Italy were more behind. Furthermore, the situation is very similar when calculating expenses per capita.

According to Nature, the countries that joined the EU in 2004 or later received only 5% of program funds, while contributing 9% to the budget. In its current form, Horizon 2020 was actually draining research funds from post-communist countries.

 The budget balance (grants received minus amounts paid to the budget) per capita (Horizon 2020 until June 2018), author’s own work based on data from www.peter-fisch.eu (Eurostat, CORDIS, 2015 EU Budget)

A new opening to the countries of the “new Union”?

The disparities between the countries of the new and old EU were obvious to everyone, from scientists to decision-makers. The example of the Netherlands, where the country receives over twenty times more European research funds per capita than Poland or Romania, is a striking one.

In March 2019, rectors of Central and Eastern European universities issued a special memorandum in which, using diplomatic language, they ensure that they appreciate the current mechanisms, although “these have very little impact on the situation.” Although they ensure that they do not intend to change the system of substantial evaluation of projects, it is necessary to introduce such mechanisms that would stop the brain drain.

Convincing EU officials that such mechanisms are absolutely necessary will be extremely difficult in a situation where Poland itself underestimates science. In the case of research, EU funds will not replace financing from own budget. On the contrary, you need to invest a lot yourself before you lay your hands on them. By spending around 1% of its GDP on research and development, Poland is still doing less than even the Czech Republic, Slovenia or Hungary.

It is hard for things to be good: R&D expenditure in the EU in 2017; source: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/9483597/9-10012019-AP-EN.pdf/856ce1d3-b8a8-4fa6-bf00-a8ded6dd1cc1

Slovenia is the leader among Central and Eastern European countries in acquiring EU research funds. Even if we take into account the fact that current programs are clearly the most profitable for small countries – such as Slovenia or Estonia – reaching the top of the fund receivers acquired per euro paid is surely impressive.

Importantly, as Peter Fisch recalculated, compared to the previous Horizon 2020 program, Poland’s share in the European “research cake” has declined (from 1.07% to 1.02%). At the same time, Slovenia increased its share by 43% (0.44% to 0.63%), i.e. it is already acquiring over half as much funding as Polish scientists.

Although there are probably many factors playing into the equation, Slovenians certainly are not harmed by the fact that they spend more than twice as much on science as we do, GDP-wise. Interestingly, state funding is surprisingly low and fluctuates around 0.3% of GDP, with the rest of the money being donated by the private sector.

Wonder if this has something to do with it: research and development spending as a percentage of GDP (source: World Bank / UNESCO Institute for Statistics)

Why is it (still) so bad

There are several reasons for the disparity between the old and the new EU countries. First, the “seniority” in the global scientific circulation, joined by most of the new EU countries after the fall of communism, is obviously important. Having attended the same conferences for decades results in better knowledge of mutual achievements, which translates into more frequent involvement in joint initiatives.

Second, the duration of acquaintance or cooperation (both between individual researchers as well as entire centers) directly translates into growing mutual trust, which also reduces the challenge of communicating with several centers regarding a joint research project.

However, there are also reasons entirely dependent on European science policy. The principles of Horizon 2020 were adapted to Western realities. Under the Horizon, the possibility of paying remuneration from the project budget has been significantly reduced. This solution favors Western universities, where base salaries are relatively higher, while in Poland the grant component is often actually the primary source of income for scientists.

Polish science also has its issues.  Professor Janusz Bujnicki once said in an interview for the website PAP Science in Poland that competition in the European system is extremely difficult without scientists opening up to critical consultations of applications prior to their submission and without institutional support.

Although the first signs of change have started to appear in recent years, most institutions still lack good grant offices that would provide linguistic proofreading, formal verification, or use their experience to draw the writers’ attention to key requirements. Regardless their advantages, European grants are openly criticized – hardly a surprise – for their strong red-tape approach. The application itself is a three-digit number of pages, and the subsequent financing service is not painless as well.

Poland will lose on that – and that’s good!

Increasing European research and development funds at the expense of the cohesion policy or agricultural spending is undoubtedly harmful to Poland. Despite the glorious exceptions, the beacons of scientific quality composed of outstanding individuals and world-class centers, our science is too far behind and underfunded to effectively compete with foreign centers for European funds.

On the other hand, in the era of growing global tensions and technological competition between China and the USA, increasing the European scientific activity, but also the development of innovative activity, is an absolute must. If the Old Continent does not want to become outdated, it must boldly rely on research funding.

The proposed system seems to be a combination of the well-functioning system of financing basic research (ERC) already in place with the newly created system of financing innovation, focused on major social missions. The idea of a mission-oriented innovation policy propagated by Marianna Mazzucatto has reached Brussels officials surprisingly quickly – given the traditional turtle pace of European legislation.

This is a decisive moment in which the Visegrad Group – or more broadly, all the countries of the “new Union” – get to fight for their interests to be taken into account and for a bolder attempt to fill the gap between science created west of the Oder river and that created on its right bank. To this end, it is necessary to strive for including mechanisms supporting the cooperation of the old EU with the new one within Horizon Europe. Such tactics, appreciating the relevance of science and the need to invest in it in Europe, can also be accepted more easily in Brussels than the pure desire to keep as much of the budget as possible in cohesion policy.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.