The collaborative project – known as Research and Innovation Actions in H2020 –  has been the backbone of the EU Framework programme. But though always liked it has not always been loved. Caught halfway between curiosity and the market, collaborative projects have delivered something for everybody, but never entirely everything for somebody. In Horizon2020, the pendulum has swung towards the market in an effort to increase the impact of research. But is the market the cure to save science from curiosity?

This blog post is the second in a serie of 4 that reflects on Daniel Sarewitz’ lengthy essay Saving Science  and how we can use his reflections in relation to Horizon2020 as well as research and innovation systems in general. you can read the first article, which provides a brief introduction to Saving Science, here.

Horizon2020 is the biggest research and innovation funding programme in the world. With a total budget of almost 80 billion€ over 7 years it represents 25-30% of competitive research funding in Europe so how we spend those money matters. Not only is it an essential funding source for many European research organisations; it is also the largest instrument we have to foster collaboration across borders that enables the best and brightest from different countries, disciplines, organisations and companies to work together.

At the core of the EU framework programme stands the collaborative projects. You know, those projects that require partners from at least 3 countries to address a certain topic within different fields of research.

In Horizon2020 they are organised under the Societal challenges; in FP7 it was under the Thematic areas and in FP6 it was under Focusing and Integrating European Research (you can see the whole development in the illustration below, taken from the FP6 evaluation report p.84). 


What FP7 did not deliver

When FP7 was evaluated as part of the preparation for Horizon2020, the main critic of the Thematic areas that “hosted” the collaborative projects was that: 

a) they covered too wide areas (wasn’t strategic enough)
b) they produced excellent science, but not enough innovation (impact)

In addition, the Commission services had become increasingly concerned about the effect of lobbying on the call topics. The more narrow topics in FP7 often reflected the partly arbitrary results of different organisations successful lobbying and as a consequence the call topics didn’t always support the best ideas or the most important ones.

To address these three concerns (lack of strategic focus, lack of innovation and the arbitrary influence of stakeholders) the Commission and member states agreed on three things (well that, and alot of other stuff):

Firstly, they adopted the challenged based approach that the Swedish EU presidency with a combination of deft diplomacy and Scandinavian enthusiasm settled with the Lund Declaration. No more thematic areas; In Horizon we speak challenge lingo.

Secondly, they allowed the topics to be much broader defined thereby avoiding some of the arbitrary effects of lobbyism (yes there is still lobbyism, but it’s different – that is a topic for another blog post).

Thirdly, in addition to adding the Industrial leadership pillar, they also introduced the Technology Readiness Levels to emphasis that the aim of research is to bring products, services and knowledge to the market for the good of society. This message was further strengthened by increasing the focus on the impact of research

Does the TRL ladder lead me out of the valley of death?

Horizon2020 is intended to cover the whole innovation chain, from blue sky research to the market, but with a stronger focus on impact across the whole chain. The changes from FP7 to H2020 did have an effect, but as I have wrote in a previous blog post, H2020 has arguably seen the split between strongly focused curiosity driven research and research driven by a strong market pull.

Positioned in the middle between the two extremes we find the collaborative projects – known as Research and Innovation actions in H2020 – and despite the good intentions they continue to have a hard time delivering what policy makers expected.


The relative discontent of politicians and policy makers with the collaborative projects have resulted in different attempts to setup new and different mechanisms that can deliver what the collaborative projects cannot.

One direction has been the push for greater alignment of national resources. The Joint Programming Initiatives  and the development of the ERA-NET, ERA-NET+ towards the ERA-NET cofund are examples of that. I have written a blog post about the Joint Programming Initiatives here.

Another direction has been to strengthen the industry led efforts. Public-Private Partnerships and the strengthening of industry led research in H2020 under the Industrial leadership pillar are the best example of that.

But those are all efforts outside the collaborative projects. What about the collaborative projects themselves?

Back to the question – and Sarewitz

It’s time I take my cue from Sarewitz.

Reflecting on what the mission driven research by the Department of Defence (DoD) enabled and which Sarewitz sees as the example to follow, he writes in Saving science that:

Protected from both the logic of the marketplace and the capriciousness of politics by the imperative of national defense, DOD was a demanding customer…(saving science, p. 9)

“Protected from both the logic of the marketplace and the capriciousness of politics”.

Add to this Sarewitz’ overall claim that science needs to be protected from itself, and voilá: you have described the Bermuda triangle that the EU collaborative projcts has to navigate.

When it works, collaborative projects can balance between researchers’ inclination towards ‘advancing knowledge’, industry’s calls for applicable solutions and politicians’ request for research addressing the needs of society.

But as the League of European Research Universities  (LERU) notes in a recent Advice paper, “funding decisions are disproportionally skewed towards projects at the higher TRLs (five and above)”. In other words: the market pull overrides the idea of the whole innovation chain in favor of direct impact.

Proponents of the market pull would argue that their solution is better than funding research that produces reports and papers, but no innovation. They might have a point.


If the impact of research is measured by the number of products brought to the market (which will in most cases be measured by proxies such as patents) or the number of industry partners involved in the projects, are we then measuring research or are we measuring something else?

And if that is the measure of success, are collaborative research projects then the best vehicle to achieve that?

The recent trend of pulling funding from H2020 to support businesses and the wider growth agenda, as it happened in 2014 with the European Fund for Strategic Investments,  suggests that policy makers think the question is no.  But paraphrasing a classical saying “if the market is the answer, what was the question?”

While science might need to be save from itself to avoid the self-destructive vortex that Sarewitz describes, it isn’t evident that the market in itself offers a solution.

The idea of the whole innovation chain and the TRL represents a linear innovation model where success is measured by climing the TRL ladder to deliver a product/solution, but that doesn’t work if the middle steps in the ladder are removed.

Just like curiosity might need guidance, so the market needs restrain. The difficulty seems to lie in the balancing act.

So that didn’t solve the problem either….

On this quest for saving science in Horizon2020 I have thus far used Sarewitz to look at both the caprice of unbound curiosity and logic of the market. Neither seem to offer salvation on their own.

In the next post I will zero in on the role and effect of stakeholders in Horizon2020, taking my cue from Sarewitz idea of self-less honesty to see what that tells us about the state of Horizon2020 and the science it promotes.

PS: the inadequacy of the market to deliver the big breakthrough innovations on its own is convincingly chronicled in Mariana Mazzucatos The Entrepreunurial State which takes on the myth of the market as the midwife of innovation.


*Featured image: Screen dump of google search for pictures of “market driven innovation