Written by Gianluca Quaglio,
European Union (EU) policy promotes innovation with the aim of triggering an economic dynamism that will increase the competitiveness of the EU as a whole. This entails improving research and innovation (R&I) capacities, addressing territorial inequalities, and improving coordination at all levels. Achieving this requires closer coordination of research, cohesion and education policies at EU level and among Member States.
Besides the Recovery Plan, Horizon Europe and structural funds are the two most important EU funding sources for R&I. Horizon Europe focuses on European R&I excellence, the generation and utilisation of new knowledge, and disruptive, market-creating innovations. Structural funds investments are built around regional innovation eco-systems. They focus on R&I with regional relevance and the diffusion of existing knowledge and technology to places that need it, and then proceed to embed R&I locally via smart specialisation strategies. Supporting synergies in the implementation of Horizon Europe and structural funds may maximise scientific, economic and societal impact, leveraging R&I investments in Europe from all sources.
However, the process of identifying potential synergies and exploiting them is sluggish, due to complex interactions between different innovation actors, as well as rules and time frames that vary between EU-funded programmes. The EU needs to overcome this issue, since combining different funding instruments (and policy frameworks) substantially boosts competitiveness, welfare, and growth in EU regions. To achieve this objective, it is crucial to align strategies and implementation modalities, and to adapt and complement existing and future roadmaps.
All these issues were discussed during the workshop on ‘Exploring synergies between the Horizon Europe and regional policy’, organised in a virtual form on 2 February 2021, by the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA). Over 450 people participated in the event, chaired by Christian Ehler (EPP, Germany), Member of the European Parliament and STOA First Vice-Chair.
In his opening remarks, Christian Ehler highlighted that the latest EU legislation created additional opportunities for synergies between Horizon Europe and the structural funds. These synergies are needed even more urgently to face the economic challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the EU is transitioning towards a greener and increasingly digital future. All European regions need to benefit from Europe’s excellent research and innovation. Effective synergies between Horizon Europe and the structural funds should be able to support this process. Christian Ehler thanked former Member of the European Parliament, Lambert Van Nistelrooij, for his unceasing and extensive work over many years on closing the gap between research and structural funding.
A comprehensive approach to synergies is required
Too often, synergies are seen in terms of funding mechanisms and procedures, observed Paul Webb, Head of Unit for Horizon Budget and Multiannual Financial Framework Synergies, at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD). These aspects are certainly important, however, the overall objective of synergies must acknowledge that R&I in itself is not sufficient to achieve the transformations we are seeking. Instead, synergies must ensure that R&I priorities and activities are aligned with, and support, EU policies and programmes.
Paul Webb noted that such synergies must also provide the best opportunities for exploiting and deploying R&I results, to facilitate the desired transformations. To do this, a comprehensive approach is necessary, starting with the assessment of what we want to achieve. The Horizon Europe strategic planning process aims to ensure this comprehensive approach and alignment of priorities for the different Union policies and funding programmes. A number of initiatives are underway to enable the best possible opportunity for the deployment of research results and innovative solutions developed under Horizon Europe by other EU funding programmes.
A comprehensive approach to synergies was also advocated by Anna Panagopoulou, Director of the Common Implementation Centre, (DG RTD). This broad approach should be adopted at a political level, with a shared vision and common priorities; at a programming level, with an alignment of strategic priorities and co-creation of funding actions; and at an operational/implementation level, through specific and consistent legal provisions in the different regulatory frameworks. Concerning the rules for implementing synergies, she argued that there is very good progress in the legislative process on facilitating and simplifying the rules at operational level in all relevant regulations (Horizon Europe, Cohesion Policy, and the State Aid General Block Exemption).
Pursuing synergies at several levels
Synergies can be pursued at several levels, e.g. design and strategic planning, project selection, management and exploitation of results, monitoring, and governance. Synergies can be implemented by alternative, integrated or cumulative funding and by the transfer of resources. For example, Horizon Europe proposals with a Seal of Excellence (a quality label awarded to outstanding project proposals submitted to Horizon 2020, to help these proposals find alternative funding), may get support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), European Social Fund+ (ESF+), or European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). Employment of integrated funding is also possible: under certain conditions, financial contributions from programmes co-financed by structural funds may be seen as a contribution from a Member State towards participation in Horizon Europe partnerships. Many synergies are already apparent in Horizon 2020. The challenge today is to ensure that these are built-in systematically at all stages of the R&I cycle.
Concerning the transfer of resources, a possibility exists for structural fund management authorities to transfer up to 5 % of their structural fund allocation to Horizon Europe to support researchers. Transferred resources must be implemented in accordance with the rules of the fund or the instrument to which the resources are transferred. The new rules also facilitate a cumulative funding process: a single enterprise may receive two separate contributions from two Union funds or programmes, with due regard to the principle of co-financing laid down in the Financial Regulation (cumulative funding cannot exceed 100 % of the eligible costs).
Finally, synergies can also be achieved by the propagation of research results and innovative solutions developed under Horizon Europe, in particular through dissemination and exploitation strategies, transfer of knowledge, complementary and cumulative funding sources, and accompanying policy measures.
The European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT), which is integral to Horizon Europe, also represents an opportunity to strengthen the connections between R&I and regional policy. EIT Director, Martin Kern, described how the institute has been catalysing regional innovation through its targeted outreach scheme, the EIT Regional Innovation Scheme (EIT RIS), since 2014. The RIS widens access to EIT activities, creates linkages among regional innovation actors, and offers tailor-made programmes to support countries with moderate innovation performance. The EIT Strategic Innovation Agenda for 2021‑2027 will incorporate more regional support activities in EIT strategic planning and implementation.
A collective effort is needed
So far, operational and project-level synergies have proven useful, but the critical mass that is needed to mobilise large amounts of funding is still lacking. Bringing structural funds and Horizon Europe investments closer together has accelerated with the preparation of the post-2020 period. Peter Berkowitz, Head of Unit for Smart and Sustainable Growth, at the European Commission Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO), argued that this effort will hopefully strengthen the impact of both policies, in particular in less developed and peripheral regions.
Member States and regions are now engaged in developing the next round of structural fund programmes. ERDF/ESF+ managing authorities should be aware of the Horizon Europe priorities and actions when drafting smart specialisation strategies and the related structural funds programmes. In particular, the thematic priorities under Horizon Europe, as well as the missions and partnerships, could be a reference point for synergies. Horizon Europe, in turn, provides many opportunities for regional actors to participate in line with their regional policy priorities.
Franc Bogovič (PPE, Slovakia), Member of Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development (REGI), highlighted the complexity involved in organically connecting the different funds for R&I. The complications increase at the regional level, where demonstrating the possible synergies of the different tools can be more challenging. However, the tasks that the EU faces in the near future require everyone to make a collective effort. Implementing a real transition, he said, requires the development of broad coalitions at all levels, i.e. Member States, regions, cities, European R&I networks, private players, and civil society, to build strategic synergies and increase the impact of local investments.
Given the complexity of these instruments, Christian Ehler concluded by noting that it would be appropriate to organise a new STOA meeting in the near future to debate these challenging issues with the Member States, fully involving them in the discussion.
If you missed out this time, you can watch the webstream.