Where is Horizon 2020 leading us?

Europe of Knowledge |

As the year 2014 gets underway, the Europe of Knowledge also begins a new phase with the launch of Horizon 2020. Now that the budget wrangling is over and the calls for the first grant proposals have been published, we will finally begin to discover what Horizon 2020 does to reshape the research environment in Europe. While we do have clear statements (Commission 2011c) about its bringing together the instruments for research and innovation funding under a single umbrella which covers the complete innovation cycle; simplifying and unifying many of the administrative rules and procedures; and seeking to promote the competiveness of the EU with a strong linguistic flavoring from the Innovation Union discourse; still, there are far more questions than answers.


From Framework Programmes to Horizon 2020: ‘A Break from the Past’?

The first question has to be whether it is deserving of its unique name?  Rather than continue with the sequential numbering of framework programmes that has been in place for the past 30 years and which provided continuity for what became a deeply institutionalized EU policy instrument (see Banchoff 2002 for an interesting discussion of how the power of this instrument may have harmed other efforts at common research policy and initiatives), the eighth framework program provides in the commission’s words, ‘a break from the past.’ But what kind of a break does it mark? And why do we need this break at all when the framework programme is generally considered to be one of the ongoing successes of European policy? Banchoff’s argument might suggest that the framework programs as an institution had grown too powerful, but weakening the institution does not appear to be the aim of changing the name, rather, the hope is to strengthen it further.


Horizon 2020 includes more tools and covers a broader set of policy problems than before, but there is still significant continuity. In a recent conference paper (Young 2013), I argued that the fundamental change is one of policy narrative. I compared the policy documents, proposals, impact assessments and green paper process to see how different types of policy narrative were used in Horizon 2020 in comparison with the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). My conclusion was that Horizon 2020 marks a shift toward a New Public Management (NPM) narrative for structuring research policy. NPM involves making public administration more business-like by adopting private sector management practices within a competitive market context with the aims of increasing performance, efficiency and outputs (Hood 1991, Barlezay 2001, Power 2005, Pollitt and Bouckaert 2011). While there is a complex layering process at work in Horizon 2020 which still includes elements of other public administration narratives, the balance has moved towards quantitatively measureable outputs and the efficiency of excellence rather than inputs or processes as a means of judging success and steering performance.


In a very basic sense, we can say that FP7 was developed in the optimistic climate of post-millennial globalization, whereas Horizon 2020 was developed in the climate of economic crisis. This shift is visible in looking at how the Commission frames the challenges which the EU faces in its Impact Analyses for FP7 and Horizon 2020. In 2005, the Commission produced this broad statement to contextualize FP7: ‘Our time is one of high uncertainty. It is rich with threats and challenges as well as opportunities. The bipolar world  has come  and  gone and with increasing globalization new trends are emerging: the supremacy of the United States, the rise or awakening of Asian giants, but also the persistence of underdevelopment and the growing inequalities between – and within – the nations of the world’ (Commission 2005, annex p.1). The document goes on to say that Europe is not adapting well to these external challenges. By 2011, the tenor has changed, and the Commission writes: ‘The key challenge is to stabilise the financial and economic system in the short term while also taking measures to create the economic opportunities of tomorrow’ (Commission 2011, p.2). The financial crisis steers policy in a more inward-looking direction and narrows the language of opportunities to focus on economically oriented ones.


More spending on research and innovation?

The headline objective at the time of FP7 was increasing spending on research and innovation, the so called Barcelona target of spending three percent of GDP in this area, which became one of the five key indicators for the Lisbon Strategy. Relatively little progress has been made towards this target, though it continues to feature as one of headline targets of the Europe 2020 strategy. We might therefore anticipate that Horizon 2020 would attempt to influence and promote national spending. Instead, direct references to input based spending targets are downplayed in Horizon 2020. Austerity arguments coupled with ideas of increasing efficiency in order to compensate for fewer funds predominate. The lack of input-side increases in the member states is also playing out on the European level, where stabilization is considered success.


While Horizon 2020 is generously funded, and does represent a significant increase in overall funding in comparison with FP7, that increase is still not enough to stabilize the funding level from the final year of FP7. The first two years of Horizon 2020 together have 15 billion, whereas FP7 had nearly 11 billion in 2013 not including the funding for the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP) which is now part of Horizon 2020. It is worth asking why a more aggressive approach was not taken? What does this tell us about the politicians trust in the rhetoric of research and innovation being the drivers of competitiveness? In other words, why was austerity chosen as the preferred solution to the Euro crisis?


Regardless of whether there are overall increases or not, European research policy provides only a very small amount (about 10%) (Commission 2011a) of the overall funding for research and innovation compared to national sources, but its policy objectives are targeted at affecting the entire European research environment. For that it needs leverage, which can take many forms, including co-ordination, co-option, being given control over parts of what was previously a national competence, and also modeling so-called ‘good practices’ and policy ideas. Some of the ways this is happening are described below. At the same time, the level of competition for European funds is increasing. If the commission’s expectations are correct, success rates in Horizon 2020 will drop to 15% from the 22% success rate of FP7. Competition is seen as a way to increase quality, but is there a point at which too much of it becomes counterproductive?


EU research policy – a blueprint for member states?

In his recent blog post on research policy in Austria, Thomas König describes how Horizon 2020 was used by the Austrian government in legitimizing changes in their research policy, particularly in bringing it under the purview of the ministry for economic affairs. Austria is not the first country to do this; it follows the UK and Spain, and likely others will follow in placing research under the jurisdiction of economic policy rather than with higher education. But the consequences of these structural changes may create dramatic changes in terms of how research is conducted. While the EU has pragmatic reasons for depicting research as an economic activity as this is what gives it grounds to act in what otherwise might be a national activity, its strong propagation of the economic justification for research can now be seen at work in national policymaking as a blueprint for policy and governmental design. Of course there are also many other actors which promote this position, but as we can see, the EU plays an important role.


Another major area of leverage is the growing trend for countries to piggyback on the European Research Council (ERC) evaluation process. There are now reportedly 12 member states that provide national funding to researchers who reach the second stage of the ERC funding process but whose projects are not retained for funding (European Research Council 2013). This encourages researchers to apply for ERC funding, which is time consuming and has a low success rate. It also demonstrates national confidence in the European system of evaluation and maybe a willingness to relinquish more control over research to the EU. There is a clear desire in seeing more such initiatives; one of the targets for Horizon 2020 named in the Commission’s proposal is ‘Number of institutional policy and national/regional policy measures inspired by ERC funding’ (Commission 2011c, p.96). Further details are not provided, but this is something to watch.


Growing divide in European research

The public consultation for Horizon 2020 which was conducted in 2011 (Commission 2011a), shows broad support for the EU’s initiatives and ideas on how to update the Seventh Framework Programme. While there are some critical contributions, for the most part, there are supportive statements from those nearly 2000 governments, universities, organizations, corporations and individuals that participated. However, we should note that levels of participation in the green paper process followed closely both the levels of national investment in research and development as well as scores on the 2013 Innovation Union Scoreboard. This is indicative of the growing divide in European research: the leading research countries are separating quickly from the rest, introducing the danger of a European geography where serious research only happens in select pockets.


The EU is quite aware of this, and the so called ‘widening debate’ for research is on the agenda. How to best address this issue is less clear. In the earlier framework projects, having partners in the EU-10 countries (new member states which join in 2004) was legislated into the program, and brought about quite a bit of well-deserved criticism. In Horizon 2020 excellence-only evaluation became nearly taken-for-granted and was employed in debates as something of a code word for not engaging distributive justice issues. The commission tried to move these issues, which it referred to as the ‘stairway to excellence’, off to the cohesion and structural funds and out of Horizon 2020.


In the end, the widening debate does have a small presence in Horizon 2020 with a section devoted to reducing the innovation divide in Europe (e.g. Teaming initiative). It is not, however, incorporated into any of the other instruments; is a standalone area which will be used to fund partnerships between research leaders and participants in countries which fall below 70% of EU average on the “Composite indicator of Research Excellence” (Horizon 2020 Work Program 2014-2015). This is a new measure that is based on four variables which purports to define research excellence. This quantification of excellence is yet another sign of the encroachment of a New Public Management narrative.


Chasing horizons

What this means for researchers remains to be seen. Pointing out the influence of neo-liberal thinking in Horizon 2020 allows us to consider how it is likely to steer outcomes. In many countries a similar shift has already taken place, so the EU is not breaking new ground, but by grounding its narrative in these ideas, the EU does strengthen the foundation for further changes. Will these changes make Europe the world leader in research as hoped? Are the indicators and benchmarks up to that task? Is a more concentrated system of research universities, like that found in the US, the way to achieve this? Which countries will be most effective in obtaining funds, and which researchers will get them? Will the new rules and conditions lead their projects be groundbreaking and risky or more conservative?


What kind of pursuit is Horizon 2020? I am reminded of this short poem by Stephen Crane:


I saw a man pursuing the horizon;

Round and round they sped.

I was disturbed at this;  

I accosted the man.

“It is futile,” I said,

“You can never —”


“You lie,” he cried,  

And ran on.


Chasing horizons in hopes of catching them is likely futile, but we may still find great value in the process of seeking to get there.


Mitchell Young works at Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic) in the Department of West European Studies where he is conducting his doctoral research on the implementation of research policy and issues related to European Higher Education and Research Area. 



Banchoff, T. (2002) ‘Institutions, Inertia and the European Union Research Policy‘, Journal of Common Market Studies, 40/1:1-21.


Barzelay, M. (2001) The New Public Management: Improving Research and Policy Dialogue Berkeley: University of California Press.


Commission of the European Communities (2005) Commission Staff Working Paper, Impact Assessment And Ex Ante Evaluation, SEC(2005) 430, Brussels.


Commission of the European Communities (2011a) Green Paper on a Common Strategic Framework for EU Research and Innovation Funding: Analysis of public consultation, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union


Commission of the European Communities (2011b) Commission Staff Working Paper, Impact Assessment  Accompanying the Communication from the Commission ‘Horizon 2020 –  The Framework Programme for Research and Innovation,’ SEC(2011) 1427, Brussels.


Commission of the European Communities (2011c) Proposal for a Regulation of The European Parliament and of The Council establishing Horizon 2020 – The Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014-2020), COM(2011) 809, Brussels.


European Research Council (2013) Ideas 2 (June), Brussels: European Research Council.


Hood, C. (1991) ‘A Public Management for All Seasons?’, Public Administration, 69/1: 3-19.


Horizon 2020 Work Program 2014-2015. Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation.


Pollitt, C. and Bouckaert, G. (2011) Public Management Reform, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press


Power, M. (2005) ‘The Theory of the Audit Explosion’. In: Ferlie, E., Lynn, L, and Pollitt, C., (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Public Management, pp.326-44. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Young, M. (2013) ‘Shifting Policy Discourses in FP 7 and Horizon 2020’, paper presented at the panel “Constructing the European Research Area in Times of Crisis”, 7th ECPR General Conference, Bordeaux, 4-7 September.