Building the European Research Area: Joint calls on the eve of Horizon2020

Europe of Knowledge |

An important aim of the European Research Area (ERA) is to facilitate the voluntary coordination among national research funding agencies. While most of the research funding is allocated nationally, the ERA encourages national research funding bodies to set up joint trans-national calls to fund European research networks. Since the launch of ERA in 2000, a number of new trans-national funding instruments have been established and supported by the EU Framework Programmes, such as ERA-NET, ERA-NET Plus, the “Article 185” initiatives, the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and the Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs).

In order to facilitate joint trans-national calls, political will is needed to change/adjust national funding procedures. The 2013 ERA progress report published last month demonstrated that alignment of national administrative procedures has not advanced as much as it was hoped.


What are joint trans-national research funding calls?

Joint trans-national research funding instruments include schemes such as ERA-NET, ERA-NET Plus, the “Article 185” initiatives, the Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) and the Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs).[i]

ERA-NETs were first introduced in the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) to develop and strengthen the coordination of public research programmes conducted at national or regional level, in this way tackling the issue of fragmentation of the ERA. Given their success and the long-term perspective of this scheme, it was continued in FP7 but was also reinforced with a new instrument, “ERA-NET Plus”, in which Community financial support was provided for “topping-up” the joint trans-national research funding. In Horizon2020, the ERA-NET scheme will take the form of a merger between the former ERA-NET and ERA-NET Plus instruments: in this new instrument (called ERA-NET) it will be compulsory to implement one substantial call and this call will receive top-up funding from the Commission.

The Lisbon treaty brought new instruments, aiming at closer coordination of national R&D programmes. First, measures under Article 185 foresaw the participation of the Community in the joint implementation of national programmes, implying that the participating Member States integrate (rather than simply coordinate) their research efforts by defining and committing themselves to a joint research programme, in which the European Community promotes the voluntary integration of scientific, managerial and financial aspects. Second, the Joint Technology Initiatives(JTI, Article 187) are public-private partnerships involving the EU, national and private resources, know-how and research capabilities for a period of many years, with the aim of addressing major issues in areas of global competitiveness and high societal relevance.

More recently, the Ljubljana-process launched Joint Programming (JP) whose main objective was to address common societal challenges. Joint Programming is a strategic approach (and not an instrument), through which a more efficient and more effective public R&D funding in Europe shall be reached. Once the societal challenges of common interest were determined they were transformed into JP Initiatives (JPI) with Strategic Research Agendas aiming to strengthen Europe’s capacity to translate the results of its research into tangible benefits for society and for the overall competitiveness of its economy.


Public funding leverage

In the recent “Report on ERA-NET, ERA-NET Plus and JPIs and their joint calls” by the EC, it was stated that the total public funding of research implemented by ERA-NETs, ERA-NET Plus and JPIs between 2004 and 2012 amounts to more than € 2.06 Billion. For the period 2013 – 2015, calls with a total volume between € 845 Million and € 1.2 Billion public funding are currently expected.

This and the fact that the annual public funding leveraged by these instruments is also growing quite steadily are great achievements, but one should ask whether this level of funding is good enough. For example, if one compares the € 455 Million total public funding leveraged by these instruments in 2013 (as according to the report mentioned above) with the EU-27’s Gross domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) for the same year (provisionally estimated at around EUR 257 billion in 2013), then one concludes that only 0.2% of GERD was invested in trans-national projects.

What emerges from such an analysis is that public funding leveraged might not be high enough. This result is most probably a reflection of the recent financial crisis in Europe, with national research budgets having fallen in most EU countries. Nevertheless, this percentage remains a reflection of the level of political will of the Member States to invest in these trans-national projects.


A more targeted approach

An analysis of the evolution of the joint call instruments reflects a shift in the funding policy regarding the ERA-NET instruments. In FP6, calls for ERA-NETs were open to any field of science and technology (beyond the FP6 priorities) and the scheme was implemented through a bottom-up approach, in the sense that no preference to specific research themes or disciplines was given. In FP7, the focus is shifted from the funding of networks to the top-up funding of individual joint calls. The thematic areas are more restricted since in the case of ERA-NETs “bottom up” proposals are accepted only in specific areas corresponding to the Work Programme, whereas for the newly introduced ERA-NET Plus instrument the topics were chosen beforehand.

In Horizon2020, the approach is becoming even more targeted, since funding will be available only if a joint call will be implemented (accompanied with reduced focus on the networking activities) and only in pre-selected areas with high European added value and relevance for Horizon2020. Their aim is an increase in the share of funding dedicated jointly Member States to challenge-driven research and innovation.

There has thus been a clear shift from a “bottom-up and networking-heavy” approach in FP6 to a “targeted and call-dependent” approach in Horizon2020. It is also evident that fundamental research joint calls have suffered from this shift.


The real implementation costs

High interest in implementation of the joint funding instruments was confirmed by the oversubscribed ERALEARN workshop that took place in Brussels last month, aimed at training people responsible for running joint calls. Participants of the workshop were trained on the stages of the call implementation process based on ERALEARN’s online toolbox, introduced to the interesting studies prepared by the ERALEARN team and in parallel discussed the instruments themselves. Such discussions greatly benefited from the fact that participants were a great mixture of newcomers and experienced practitioners.

It was realised early on in the workshop that there is wide variation in the call implementation costs (staff effort for coordination and travel costs for evaluators and staff) between different consortia. It was thus great news that members of the ERALEARN team have already started a much-needed study of the man effort and costs of joint calls. This cost/benefit questionnaire they have prepared is aimed at self-evaluation of the consortia. However, given that the funding provided by the EC for joint call implementation is being decreased in Horizon2020, it could help funding agencies understand what the realistic costs of joint calls are as well as in which ways the efficiency of the calls can be improved.

The analysis of the few data collected so far showed that the joint call implementation costs decrease with experience, i.e. the initial costs of a call are high since the implementation procedures (for the different options see ERALEARN’s toolbox) need to be established, but once this is achieved, the costs exponentially decrease. This is true for the costs for the whole consortium and the costs per partner.

Since each funding consortium is different, it is logical that there will be in the joint call costs as well, but this study provides evidence that once funding agencies learn how to work together, the costs of trans-national calls decrease. This is a very positive result since it implies that there has been a clear benefit for the instruments and funding that has been invested through the Framework Programmes.


Dr. Ino Agrafioti is a Scientific Officer at CNRS, France

[i] For analysis see also Barre et al. (2013) “Measuring the integration and coordination dynamics of the European Research AreaScience and Public Policy 40: 187–205; Edler, J (2012) “Toward variable funding for international scienceScience, 338(6105), 331-332.