In the run up to the creation of Horizon2020, the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation for 2014 – 2020, Research and Technology Organisations (RTO) and others lobbied hard for the European Commission to ensure that the programme would address the “Valley of Death” between academic research and the uptake of innovation by companies. 3 years into the programme, H2020 has arguably been a success in addressing this gap. But, did H2020 manage to bridge this gap at the expense of opening up a new valley of death further upstream in the innovation chain?

Horizon 2020, the European Union’s 70 billion € Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, introduced a set of new  concepts compared to its predecessor FP7. Research was going to deliver tangible benefit to society by matching closely the big societal challenges while also leaving room for the kind of blue sky research that Nobel prize dreams are made of.

An important narrative in promoting the need for more impact of research was the concept of bridging the “valley of Death”; the notion that there exists a gap in the innovation chain from basic research to market driven innovation that will otherwise turn a researchers good idea into a great product. Applied research performed by research and technology organisations (RTOs) in close collaboration with industrial partners was seen as the cure for the ill.

The concept of the valley of death was not invented as a lobby concept in the run up to Horizon2020. It was and is a well-established concept and there was broad agreement that compared to the US and Japan, Europe has been great at doing excellent research but bad at turning it into products. The European innovation chain had a missing link that hurt the continents growth and global competitiveness. Horizon2020 was going to change that. Research funded should be relevant by tackling societal challenges, it should have impact by demonstrating hard figures of its effect, for instance in terms of lowering the levelised cost of energy in the case of energy research, and it should position itself on the innovation chain by clearly indicating its place on the technology readiness level and demonstrate how a research idea could descend the ladder from blue sky research down to a final marketable product.

Fast forward to 2016, Horizon2020 certainly has changed the trend in European collaborative projects. A 2016 note from LERU shows that more collaborative projects are now done at higher TRL levels than before. And, we might add, with a much clearer drive to deliver ideas and innovations in collaboration with European Companies. At the same time, the European Research Council (ERC) has increased its budget to fund pure excellence in the shape of individual researchers at different stages of their careers.

Perhaps the changes to Horizon2020 was a welcomed change. Too much research in previous Framework Programmes ended up in final reports and various deliverables, but never made it further than the academic desk drawers or that infamous airport hangar that I remember older colleagues in Brussels would tell us youngster arriving in town that the European Commission had to store all the reports from EU projects (I never saw the hangar and actually don’t know if it exists or not – but that’s another story).

However, as the trends set by Horizon2020 have spread to national research programmes, we need to look at the drawbacks of the new approach as the European Commission starts the interim evaluation of H2020 and prepares for the next framework programme starting in 2020.

Specifically we need to ask if the Commission and member states in repairing one link in the innovation chain, broke another? Did they bridge one valley of death only to open up another valley of death, this time a bit further upstream the innovation chain?

Are research agencies favoring research that is either shooting for a Nobel prize or delivering plug-and-play solutions for industry? And is it happening at the price of the “boring” research that isn’t breaking new ground nor delivering ready solutions, but which is just as important a link in the innovation chain if we want to bring new ideas to societal use?

What do you think?

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