Horizon 2020: UK launch for EU's £67bn research budget

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

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image captionThe ERC funds activity across all fields of research, with the emphasis squarely on excellence

The new European Union research budget has had its official UK launch.

Known as Horizon 2020, the programme is worth nearly £67bn (80bn euros) and covers the next seven years.

The funds are allocated through a competitive process, in which Britain traditionally fares very well - second only to Germany.

If this performance is maintained, UK universities, research centres and businesses could expect to receive £2bn in the first two years of Horizon 2020.

Such an allocation would equate to just over a fifth of the total British government spend on science.

"My challenge to the UK's researchers, universities, small and medium-sized enterprises, and large companies is to apply in huge numbers to participate in the programme," said EU Research Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn.

"The competition will be fierce but I also believe that the excellence of the projects and the proposals coming from the UK means it will do very well out of Horizon 2020."

Frontier research

The European bloc's 28 member states approved the implementation of Horizon 2020 last autumn, leading to the first grant applications call in December. The opening day of the process saw 70,000 forms being downloaded every hour.

media captionMaire Geoghegan-Quinn: "The challenge is commercialising the research"

As with the previous "Framework Programmes", the old name given to EU science and research budgets, the intention is that the hefty investment can act as a kind of innovation growth factor, bringing on the next-generation high-value services and products that keep Europe at the forefront of world markets.

And as with those previous programmes, a large segment of the funding will be focused on some key areas of societal need or impact, such as health, climate change, the environment, energy, security, and transport.

But Horizon 2020 plans to put an even greater emphasis this time on basic, or frontier, research.

The European Research Council, the EU's "blue riband" funding agency, has had its own pot increased 60% to £10.7bn.

The ERC's sole criterion in judging grant applications is excellence, and UK-based scientists have been by far the biggest beneficiaries of its awards.

A fifth of all the grants have gone to British science, representing an investment of some £1.4bn to date.

Business partnerships

Sir Paul Nurse is president of the UK's Royal Society, which hosted Friday's launch event.

He told BBC News: "European money is really important and it's very good that it is going up by 30%. I think also driving collaboration across Europe is really good because we get access to 350 million people - it's one of the reasons [science] works so well in the United States.

"But particularly, at least from my perspective at the discovery research end, the ERC has made a very real difference. The European Commission is very proud of it and rightly so."

Past Framework Programmes have been criticised for their bureaucracy. Companies have sometimes been dissuaded from applying because of the "expense" of winning an award (a grant will not cover all of the overheads of running a research project).

Horizon 2020 promises streamlined processes. "We've cut out loads of red tape," said Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn.

The hope is that many more businesses will now get involved, not least because they are the route through which discoveries become products, services, and jobs.

"Across Europe and elsewhere, we are concerned by impacts," said Robert-Jan Smits, whose job is to run Horizon 2020 within the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation.

"How can we ensure that the pounds we put into knowledge can be translated back into pounds again? That requires probably an industrial partner, to help ensure the results of research reach a market. There's no escape from that."

International competition

The EU set a target in 2000 of making itself, "by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".

One of the metrics to judge this aspiration was the desire to spend 3% of GDP on research. However, four years after the target date, the EU-wide R&D spend has not gone much beyond 2%.

The economic downturn is undoubtedly a major reason for the undershoot. Companies cut back on R&D during the recession and government austerity measures have hit public investments hard.

But Europe's competitors have not stood still. The likes of the US, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore all have more intense spending than the EU bloc.

China, too, is emerging rapidly. "If you look at the kind of massive investment they're making in research and innovation - I think that's a wake-up call for Europe," said Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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