Horizon 2020 – New Opportunities for Transatlantic S&T Cooperation

Bridges vol. 39, May 2014 / Feature Article

By Manfred Horvat, Vienna University of Technology, Austria

Horizon 2020, a financial instrument implementing the Innovation Union, is a Europe 2020 initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness. Manfred Horvat discusses opportunities for supporting enhanced transatlantic research and innovation cooperation through its three research pillars.

Over the last 30 years, the EU framework program has become the world’s largest competitive program, funding mainly trans-border collaborative R&D projects that are also open for international partners worldwide. That position is fortified by a substantial increase in the budget allocated for the next seven years. The fact that the new EU framework program (FP) for research and innovation for 2014-2020 is called “Horizon 2020” rather than FP8 (following FP7) is more than a gimmicky change to a new brand or label. Rather, it points to more substantial changes.

Horizon 2020 is the European Union’s financial instrument supporting excellent research and innovation within the frame of the Europe 2020 strategy for building growth and new jobs. In that context, it is a main element of the Innovation Union flagship initiative and the commitment to completing the European Research Area (ERA) by 2014 as an internal market for R&D characterized by free movement of people, knowledge, and technologies.

One particular new feature is the emphasis on innovation. The program covers all elements of the innovation process from curiosity-driven science and research, through technological development, to close-to-market applications and innovation supported by new financial instruments. It contributes to the integration of education, research, and innovation in the knowledge triangle. And it addresses all actors in the innovation system: universities, research and technology organizations, companies, funding agencies, regional authorities, and others.

Compared to previous programs that focused primarily on various technology areas, this program has a new structure. Its three pillars are: underpinning scientific excellence, supporting industrial leadership, and sustaining the bases for addressing societal challenges.

Two schemes cut across the three main action lines. The “Science with and for Society” scheme considers the fact that science is an integral part of society and focuses on the ever-growing demand for involving society in the development of science, the need to attract more young talent into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and the need to promote social awareness and responsibility among researchers and innovators. The other scheme, “Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation,” addresses the diversity of patterns and intensities between “new” and “old” Member States participating in European research and innovation activities and offers measures for overcoming the existing imbalances.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) combines education for entrepreneurship, research for industrial and societal applications, and impact management in global markets through innovation.

Yet another important novelty should be highlighted: The rules for participating in the program are radically simplified. A key characteristic of the new rules is that there will be only one funding scheme for research projects for all types of organizations: up to 100% of direct costs and 25% of indirect costs. For innovation projects, the same scheme will be valid for universities; companies will receive up to 75% of direct costs and 25% of indirect costs will be covered.

Horizon 2020’s budget of almost €80 billion (in current prices) shows the priority that EU Member States and the European Parliament place on EU research and innovation policies and programs, despite times of financial crisis. The following table shows the detailed structure of the program as well as the percentages of funding.

Excellent science (31.73%) Industrial leadership
Societal challenges

  European Research Council (ERC)

  Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Actions

  European research infrastructures (including e-infrastructures)

  Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) 

  Leadership in enabling & industrial technologies

  • Information and communication technology
  • Nanotechnology 
  • Advanced materials
  • Biotechnology
  • Advanced manufacturing and processing
  • Space

  Access to risk finance

  Innovation in SMEs 

  Health, demographic change, and well-being

  Food security, sustainable agricultures and forestry, marine maritime and inland water research, and the bio-economy

  Secure, clean, and efficient energy

  Smart, green, and integrated transport

  Climate action, environment research efficiency, and raw materials

  Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative, and reflective societies

  Secure societies – Protecting freedom and security of Europe and its citizens 

Science with and for society (0.60%)

Spreading excellence and widening participation (1.06%)

European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) (3.52%)
Non-nuclear actions of the Joint Research Centre (JRC) (2.47%)


Horizon 2020 will be open to international cooperation, which is a crosscutting priority, following a new strategy for 2014-2020 with the following objectives:

  • Strengthening the EU’s excellence and attractiveness in research and innovation as well as its industrial and economic competitiveness
  • Tackling global societal challenges
  • Supporting the EU’s external policies.

As in the past, general openness for researchers from across the world will be a basic characteristic of the programs. However, in Horizon 2020, international cooperation will follow a new strategic approach seeking agreements with key partner countries or regions on joint priorities and multi-annual roadmaps for targeted cooperative actions. With industrialized countries like the US, joint and coordinated calls for proposals will be the preferred implementation mode based on jointly agreed upon and balanced co-funding. The four priorities agreed between the EU and the US are Health, Marine and Arctic Research, Transport, and NMP (Nanosciences, Nanotechnologies, Materials, and New Production Technologies).

Excellent science

The Excellent Science pillar offers breeding grounds and launching platforms for new ideas and scientific breakthroughs by funding human resources and infrastructures for research and by providing an open space for high-risk collaborative research directed towards Future and Emerging Technologies (FET). Undergirding the strong emphasis on basic research is the understanding that scientific breakthroughs are, on the one hand, contributing to the development of society’s body of knowledge but, on the other hand, they may be developed into improved and new products and services, thus contributing towards growth and jobs.

The EU proved its awareness of the need for excellent human resources for research for achieving the ambitious 2020 goals by allocating 25% of the Horizon 2020 budget to that area through the European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie Actions.

The ERC funds frontier research of excellent principle investigators (PIs) and their teams following a bottom-up approach by organizing Europe-wide competition, evaluation, and selection. The ERC offers different types of grants: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants, Synergy Grants (no calls in 2014), and Proof of Concept.

In contrast to the rest of the framework program, the ERC does not request transborder cooperation and/or mobility. In the past, funding the fundamental research of principal investigators was seen as the task of national agencies. Therefore, the approach of the ERC was a real novelty that, during FP7, achieved full and even enthusiastic adoption and recognition by the science and research community. The ERC also receives widespread respect at the global level. In the new programming period from 2014 to 2020, the ERC will benefit from a 60% budget increase over FP7; but it will also face challenges.

The first years of the ERC showed that one remaining challenge is to ensure that excellent researchers from less well-known institutions are also encouraged to participate and receive opportunities equal to those of applicants from top institutions of global reputation. This will require – among other things – in-depth analyses, especially of the reasons for the huge differences in success between “old” and “new” Member States’ applicants. The gap may not necessarily be rooted in lower quality researchers and research proposals but may also reflect differences of the awareness level. Recognition and reputation of their home institution may also play a role.

Another challenge worth considering is future development of the relations between the ERC and national funding councils and agencies. A number of countries are accepting the results of ERC evaluations for national funding when the ERC budget is inadequate. This underlines the central role of the ERC as a Europe-wide evaluation facility, and also shows that the funding need not necessarily come from the EU. In addition, the fact that Member States are launching programs similar to the ERC deserves attention. The national funders may well consider gradually taking a key role both in the management and in funding by jointly organizing Europe-wide competitions that, however, involve national funding or, in a more advanced stage, come from a “common pot.”

The Horizon 2020 pilot scheme supporting Synchronized Call Initiatives goes in the latter direction. The idea is that funding agencies from different countries or regions form a consortium to launch a synchronized call at the European level, addressing a predetermined scientific field with one identical call deadline. Joint Europe-wide peer review is the key idea, with the goal of strengthening excellence by wider competition involving researchers from several countries. The participating funding agencies will fund successful research project proposals at national or regional levels. Structuring the European funding system in such a way would certainly be an important move towards the European Research Area. The Commission and the Member States should discuss that issue together with the ERC and Science Europe.

Numerous evaluations of FPs identified the Marie Curie Scheme that funds researcher training and mobility as a core part of European research activities. Developing human resources for research at doctoral and postdoc levels through transnational and trans-sectoral mobility in Europe and beyond, as well as attracting researchers from other parts of the world to Europe, are key elements of strengthening the scientific knowledge base in Europe.

The Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions (MSCA) in Horizon 2020 will profit from a streamlined structure as well as from a focus on promoting complementary skills particularly related to innovation. There will be four types of MSCA:

  • Research networks (ITN): support for Innovative Training Networks for joint research training and/or doctoral programs, implemented by European partnerships of universities, research institutions, and non-academic organizations
  • Individual fellowships (IF): support for experienced researchers undertaking mobility between countries, optionally to the non-academic sector
  • International and inter-sectoral cooperation through Research and Innovation Staff Exchanges (RISE)
  • Co-funding of regional, national, and international programs that finance fellowships involving mobility to or from another country.

Although the budget of that scheme was increased, many stakeholders and participants in previous framework programs had expected a more substantial upgrading of the financial resources in that area. Recent studies show that mobility in Europe is still at a lower level than in the United States. Therefore, there is a need for further strengthening of the scheme and emphasizing its role for structuring the European Research Area, supporting the connectivity of researchers and research institutions and, last but not least, positively influencing citation rates.

With a moderate budget, the Research Infrastructures scheme supports the networking, coordination, and cooperation of existing research infrastructures, as well as planning and feasibility studies for new infrastructures of pan-European relevance. The ESFRI road map is the strategic basis for the further development of research infrastructures as key elements of the European Research Area. The Innovation Union flagship initiative sets an ambitious goal: By 2015, the Member States together with the Commission should have completed or launched the construction of 60% of the priority European research infrastructures currently identified by ESFRI.

The Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) part of the excellence pillar has the clear aim of fostering radically new technologies coming from excellent science in new areas based on new interdisciplinary collaborations. Exploring novel and high-risk ideas has the potential to lead to breakthrough innovations strengthening Europe’s competitiveness and growth.

The FET program has three complementary lines of action to address different methodologies and scales, from new ideas to long-term challenges:

  • FET Open follows a bottom-up approach and supports early-stage joint science and technology research around new ideas for radically new future technologies 
  • FET Proactive acts as an incubator for exploring a number of promising research themes. The work program 2014-2015 supports emerging fields and communities in:
    • Global Systems Science (GSS)   
    • Knowing, doing, and being: cognition beyond problem solving
    • Quantum simulation
    • Towards exascalehigh-performance computing. 
  • FET Flagships are joint efforts of EU and national programs providing large shared financial support for ambitious, large-scale, long-term, science-driven, goal-oriented, roadmap-based research initiatives tackling grand challenges in S&T. They require a long-term commitment of all key stakeholders and should have substantial impact on science, technology, and society; lead to novel innovation clusters in Europe; and facilitate alignment of national and regional research efforts. FET will provide the main EU support in H2020 of the two FET flagships already chosen under FP7: “Graphene” and the “Human Brain Project” (HBP).

Industrial leadership

Industrial leadership, the second pillar of Horizon 2020, aims at contributing towards achieving the EU industrial policy goals for competitiveness and sustainability. The aim in particular is to increase the productivity in manufacturing and process industry and associated services as important components of the EU Strategy for Key Enabling Technologies (KET). The scheme emphasizes areas of research and innovation that have a strong industrial dimension and where mastering new technological opportunities will enable and drive innovation: ICT, nanotechnology, advanced materials, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and processing, and space. The activities will cover the whole innovation chain by supporting research, development, and demonstration and, where appropriate, also standardization and certification.

Horizon 2020 also offers new financial instruments. Very often research- and innovation-oriented companies suffer from lack of available loans and equity finance. The program line “Access to risk finance” addresses these deficits and will support organizations active in research and innovation to gain easier access, via financial instruments, to loans, guarantees, counter-guarantees, and hybrid, mezzanine, and equity finance.

Calls under the Horizon 2020 Societal Challenge and Industrial Leadership lines will in general encourage and promote SME participation. The “Innovation in SMEs” scheme particularly addresses SMEs through a new SME instrument that will provide comprehensive support for individual SMEs by funding, combined with a coaching and mentoring service in three phases: proof of concept, development and demonstrations, and go-to-market commercialization.

Societal challenges

The Societal challenges pillar marks the most important change in Horizon 2020 compared to previous programs by explicitly reflecting the priorities and challenges defined by the Europe 2020 strategy. In order to follow the challenge-based approach, projects will need to involve capacities, capabilities, and skills from different technologies and disciplines. Therefore, characteristics will be interdisciplinary and inter-sectoral cooperation involving generic technologies and sciences including social sciences and humanities. In addition, interactions with the relevant policy areas at the EU and national levels will be highly relevant.

Actions at the EU level will ensure that the critical mass of resources and complementary competences will be assembled to address both pan-European and global challenges. The challenge-oriented approach is expected to attract young people into science and engineering; and it will be easier to convey the relevance of these activities to the public and raise public awareness about the importance of research and innovation for prosperity and quality of life.

The shift to the challenge-based approach will be a challenge in itself. Making interdisciplinary cooperation a reality and orienting different scientific paradigms and methodological approaches towards commonly agreed upon objectives is difficult. The integration of social sciences and humanities (SSH) with science and engineering will require new ways of thinking and opening up to other perspectives including the awareness regarding the role of values in design decisions.

New and innovative technologies result from of the interactions and decisions of different human actors. Decision makers seeking sustainable solutions need to consider different values, demands, interests, and expectations such as functionality, economic efficiency, environmental quality, safety and security, justice, national and international laws, regulations and standards, health, quality of life, prosperity, and societal quality, democracy, equal opportunities, comfort, personal development, autonomy, privacy. Therefore, for addressing societal challenges and looking for technological and nontechnical solutions, appropriate interdisciplinary approaches will be key. Horizon 2020 will thus be a “laboratory” for developing future oriented ways and means to cope with the grand societal challenges.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) has the objectives of reinforcing the EU’s innovation capacity and addressing societal challenges by promoting structural change. It is a new independent European body and a pioneering new hybrid institution based on distributed regional collocation centers that bring together higher education institutions, research organizations, and companies in transnational Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs). Thus, the EIT concept combines the proximity of colocation in regional innovation ecosystems and the local-global connectivity in KICs. It has the explicit objective of making the knowledge triangle a reality, integrating education, research, and innovation with the goal of fostering innovative activities – new products and services and innovative start-ups – by developing new generations of entrepreneurs and catalyzing joint endeavors between KICs and investors.

After a difficult start of the EIT, the first three KICs – KIC InnoEnergy, EIT KIC ICT Labs, and Climate KIC – are developing promising new approaches to strengthening entrepreneurship and innovation in Europe.

From 2014 to 2020 of Horizon 2020, the activities of the EIT will be substantially expanded in three Calls for Proposals based on a budget increase to €2.7 billion. In the 2014 Call, two new KICs will be selected focusing on “Innovation for healthy living and active ageing” and on “Raw materials – sustainable exploration, extraction processes, recycling and substitution.” In 2016, proposals for two new KICs will be called for: “Food4Future” and “added-value manufacturing.” A further call is planned for 2018 addressing “Urban mobility.”

Proposals for KICs will be evaluated against three groups of criteria for assessing strategy and organization as well as, most importantly, impact.

At the end of Horizon 2020, the EIT will be an institution distributed across Europe encompassing eight KICs with about five collocation centers each, which means some 40 local/regional centers. The EIT is supposed to have the capacity to reinforce the EU’s innovation capacity and address societal challenges by promoting structural change – and also to act as a change agent for the institutions involved. Building and managing such an education, research, and innovation institution will be a challenge and an interesting experiment that may become a model for future organizations, spurring entrepreneurship, research, and innovation in macro-regions like the European higher education, research, and innovation area.

Horizon 2020 foresees different funding schemes:

  • Collaborative projects: research projects, research and innovation projects, and innovation actions
  • Coordination and Support Actions
  • The SME instrument
  • Co-funded actions supporting calls for proposals of programs funded by national or regional funding agencies
  • Marie Sklodowska Curie grants and ERC grants
  • Public pre-commercial procurement actions and public procurement of innovative solutions actions
  • Prizes.

In addition, multilateral activities involving additional financial means from industry and Member States will complement the above Horizon 2020 funding schemes.

Building on the positive experiences of the European Technology Platforms in FP6 and FP7, several Joint Technology Initiatives (JTIs) were launched during FP7. The JTIs that started in FP7 are organized as Joint Undertakings (JUs) and have become real European flagships combining industrial with academic potential following mid- and long-term strategic research agendas supported by substantial public-private funding. At the start of Horizon 2020, the first five JTIs are running at full speed and the approach will be continued or extended under Horizon 2020 in the following areas: Innovative Medicine Initiative (IMI), Fuel Cells and Hydrogen (FCH), Clean Sky, Bio-based Industries, and Electronic components and systems. The JTI JU Bio-based industries are new, while the JTI JU Electronic Components and Systems is a merger of the previous ARTEMIS and ENIAC JTIs. The total budget of the five initiatives will be around €15 billion with about one-third coming from Horizon 2020, some 60% from industry, and the rest from Member States that contribute to some of the JTIs.

Industry taking the lead is a specific and important feature of the JTI Jus, while the close partnership with universities and research organizations acknowledges their roles as equal partners consistent with their enhanced specific missions for knowledge transfer and circulation.

In FP7, US partners were also involved JTI JUs. In selected areas, there is certainly the possibility for enhanced cooperation with the US in Horizon 2020.

Since, FP6 (2002-2006), the ERA-NET scheme of supporting the coordination of national R&D policies and programs opened new perspectives for trans-border cooperation based on the success in mobilizing substantial national funds to support European R&D cooperation beyond the framework programs. For the future, simplification through an “ERA Framework” of rules or principles for participation – including evaluation agreed upon and implemented by national research councils that may still offer some flexibility for adjusting to very specific and well-founded national requirements – would be real progress towards ERA.

Based on the positive ERA-NET experience, Joint Programming Initiatives (JPI) were launched by Member States in different arrangements with the goal of developing powerful European programs based on well-coordinated and aligned national programs. In the course of five years, 10 JPIs were developed and huge efforts and resources were invested by the involved national actors towards reaching agreement on the concepts and contents of the programs. JPIs are being developed in the areas of Urban Europe, Connecting Climate Knowledge for Europe, Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, A Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life, More Years, Better Lives, Neurodegenerative Disease Research, Water Challenges for a Changing World, Antimicrobial Resistance, Cultural Heritage and Global Change, and Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans. There are certainly links between some of the JPIs and the strategic priorities of EU-US science and technology cooperation.

The different approaches for building European programs and initiatives based on national programs and funding reflects the growing awareness of current shifts in the global R&D landscapes and power structures. These shifts call for changes of mind-sets towards a new balance between national interests and European needs, as well as increased awareness that cooperating and joining forces is the way forward for Europe in order to use the opportunities opened by Horizon 2020 and the Europe 2020 policy framework until 2020.

Over the past 30 years of the framework programs, the Commission developed a well-established and internationally recognized monitoring and evaluation culture that also influenced developments in national research and innovation funding systems. First, convincing studies on the long-term impact and effect of the FPs provide compelling evidence and show that they attract high-quality project ideas and top researchers, and support excellent consortia involving academia and industry from Europe and other countries. Other aspects are knowledge creation, strengthening the R&D workforce, and building new networks as a basis for open innovation. The FPs play an important role in the uptake of new technologies by industry, and in academia developing new ideas from industry’s demands. In addition, FPs are also training-and-development grounds for co-creation of new ideas leading to new products.

There is an urgent need to further develop the capacities and approaches for impact assessment, because politicians and the public demand evidence of the relevance and impact of research, technology, and innovation, and the taxpayers’ money spent for their promotion. That is certainly one of the areas for future collaboration between science and technology policy researchers from Europe and the US.

Horizon 2020 is a powerful program that offers many opportunities for supporting enhanced transatlantic research and innovation cooperation in areas of mutual interest. The new strategic approach will ensure that promising fields for cooperation will be identified where critical mass can be reached and substantial impact can be achieved. Commonly agreed upon multi-annual roadmaps will provide the framework within which partners from academia and business will be able to work together with more long-term perspectives in keeping with the Horizon 2020 evaluation criteria of excellence, management, and impact.                          


Professor Manfred Horvat teaches at the Vienna University of Technology on European and International Research, and Technology and Innovation (RTI) Policies and Programs. He formerly was a Director of the Division for European and International Programs (EIP) in the FFG and is the former Director of the Austrian Bureau for International Research and Technology Co-operation.