30 Aug 2023
Science|Business: Ivanova gets ready to lock horns with MEPs
Science|Business article by Goda Naujokaitytė, Thomas Brent and Florin Zubașcu, 29 August 2023
The commissioner-to-be has set out her views on the Horizon Europe budget, association, strategic autonomy and the east-west innovation divide ahead of the hearing in Parliament next week
Iliana Ivanova, commissioner-designate for research and innovation, has vowed to redouble efforts to raise more money for research from other parts of the EU budget, as the European Commission acknowledges that as things stand, only 30% of high-quality proposals in Horizon Europe will get funded.
The promise is made in a 38-page document published by the European Parliament in which Ivanova sketches out answers to questions filed by MEPs in the industry and research, and culture committees ahead of her confirmation hearing next Tuesday.
In response to the 26 questions posed by the two committees, Ivanova sets out her stall on issues including the development of deep tech start-ups, shortcomings of the European Innovation Council (EIC), the EU’s €10 billion fund for key technologies (STEP), the shortage of funding for basic research, the EU’s east-west research and innovation gap and negotiations over the UK and Switzerland’s association to Horizon Europe.
Ivanova’s answers are lengthy and detailed but somewhat middle-of-the-road, perhaps in an attempt to keep all MEPs, member states and those in the Commission happy.
Ivanova was named by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at the end of June to replace Mariya Gabriel, who resigned the post in May to form a new government coalition in her home country of Bulgaria.
Before she can take her post, Ivanova must get the Parliament’s approval by passing the test next week. It may be a rough ride - MEPs have a long list of questions and of complaints for a hearing that could last a few hours.
Here’s a quick summary of the answers Ivanova has prepared.
There’s a long-standing budget issue to be addressed, with not enough money by any count. In the first two years alone, Horizon Europe was €34 billion short of the amount needed to fund all high quality proposals.
Ivanova has ideas on how to find more money and promises to “explore all possible sources of funding”, from linking with other EU programmes, to attracting national and private investment. She mentions the transfer of Cohesion funds, which would involve taking up to 5% of a country’s Cohesion fund to support Horizon Europe projects, and increasing the overall Horizon budget by inviting non-EU countries to join the programme.
But this is against the backdrop that Horizon Europe funding is constantly being diverted to various other policy priorities. Defenders of research want to put an end to this. Ivanova is a little vague on the issue, but insists that any diversion of funds must “consider all relevant views and will be visible and widely recognised.”
Ensuring Europe doesn’t lag behind in the global technology race is one of Ivanova’s top priorities for the rest of the Commission’s term.
Here, she is putting her backing the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform, a €10 billion plan to top up and reshuffle parts of the EU budget to give more firepower to investments that boost the development of critical technologies. In Horizon Europe, the proposal spells a potential €2.6 billion top-up for the European Innovation Council’s Accelerator programme, which provides grants and equity to start-ups.
Ivanova also singles out support for joint EU efforts on advanced materials as being central to strategic autonomy.
For Ivanova, Horizon Europe association is another key component of the EU’s strategic autonomy ambitions. She says she’ll continue negotiations with partners interested in joining up forces in research and innovation, which include Canada, Japan and South Korea.
Maintaining the risk profile of the EIC Accelerator programme
Ivanova is aware of the hiccups and delays that have plagued the European Innovation Council (EIC) and its €7 billion Accelerator fund for start-ups.
The months’-long delays caused by the need to outsource management of the Accelerator fund, which provides equity investments to start-ups are now over, with the handover due to officially complete in the coming weeks. But the future of the EIC is still being shaped, and Ivanova promises to listen to the European Parliament, stakeholders and their concerns in the process.
For one, she says she will “ask for clear guarantees that the EIC keeps the investment profile of high-risk companies,” in response to concerns from some MEPs that the fund is making safer investments than its high-risk-driven ambition had mapped out.
Here, Ivanova said she will not rule out the possibility of the EIC going in as a sole investor in selected companies in order to protect the EU’s strategic interests if required. Right now, the EIC only acts as a co-investor, which some MEPs see as a limiting factor in the fund’s success.
Universities’ concerns about the provisions governing intellectual property rights under the EIC’s Pathfinder and Transition calls will also be listened to.
Bridging the research and innovation divide
In a few different responses to ITRE questions, Ivanova acknowledged the persistent research and innovation performance gap between east and west member states. Under Horizon Europe, the budget dedicated to Widening measures to boost participation of lower-performing countries was increased from 1% to 3.3%.
On the back of this, success rates of Horizon Europe applicants from Widening states have improved compared to the previous framework programme.
However, “a lot more needs to be done”, Ivanova said. “I see the process of widening not only as a series of actions to solve the research and innovation divide. It is a constant effort that requires all parties involved […] to continue to implement the necessary structural reforms, create the appropriate environment, ensure infrastructures and funding for the researchers.”
Ivanova references specific synergy tools such as the Seal of Excellence and the Transfer of Funds – used in different ways to allow applicants to access alternative funding following a Horizon Europe application – as ways in which the gap can be narrowed.
She also speaks highly of other Widening tools, such as the hop-on facility that allows Widening partners to be added to a consortium after-the-fact.
There was little hint of the circumspection shown by the European Commission’s new director general for research and innovation, Marc Lemaître, about Widening measures. He said at an event in June that “we should reflect […] on whether the [Widening] instruments […] are really up to making the difference, or whether we are missing something, and we don’t have all the instruments we need”.
Horizon Europe association
Ivanova also addresses the UK and Switzerland’s possible association to Horizon Europe, with the two countries currently at different stages of negotiating with Brussels over joining.
Switzerland has not been allowed to join Horizon Europe because of a broader political disagreement between Brussels and Bern, sparked in 2021 when Switzerland abandoned talks on a single overarching agreement governing its relationship with the EU. Ivanova says that negotiations with Switzerland are a “priority” for her.
On the UK, which dropped out of Horizon Europe after Brexit and has ever since been negotiating an association deal, Ivanova says she “truly hopes an agreement will soon be reached”, but gave no hints about how she would contribute to this.
Another bone of contention in the wider discussion about countries joining Horizon Europe as associated partners is the role of the Parliament in decision-making. For example, the agreement with New Zealand has irked MEPs who worry it gives the Commission power to indefinitely re-sign agreements with third countries like New Zealand without consulting them.
Ivanova seeks to reassure parliamentarians, saying if appointed she will “see to it that the services under my responsibility continue to share with the European Parliament the Commission recommendations to launch negotiations, EU proposals for draft Horizon Europe association agreement texts before tabling them in negotiations, and the consolidated texts of the agreements initiated by the Union negotiator.”
European Research Council
There has been much chat within the EU’s research community about the shortage of funding for basic research and the focus in Horizon Europe of backing projects of higher technology readiness levels. Ivanova looks to assuage these concerns, underlining the importance she places on funding fundamental science through the European Research Council (ERC).
“If appointed, I will work together with the member states to ensure all steps are taken to guarantee adequate funding, create attractive conditions for our researchers as well as appropriate research infrastructures to be further developed,” she said.
However, she seems to hint at a wish to bring the ERC in line with the Commission's broader strategic approach, saying, “The ERC is well positioned to fund a variety of projects at different levels of technology and maturity, thereby covering the entire value chain through the strategic planning process.”
This is something that could irk some MEPs who are staunch defenders of the ERC's independence from the Commission's political and policy objectives.
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