Polish research institutions and innovation companies are increasingly interested in the Horizon Europe Programme. The National Centre for Research and Development, in cooperation with Business & Science Poland (BSP), has launched the Office in Brussels in order to support the institutions willing to apply for funds to the European Commission. Mrs Ewa Kocińska-Lange, a director of this unit, discusses the scope of the Office’s activities, the Horizon Europe itself as well as changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research in Poland: Why was the NCBR Office in Brussels, which cooperates with Business & Science Poland, established? What is the scope of its operations and major aims?
Ewa Kocińska-Lange: NCBR is the main R&I funding agency in Poland and as such, has an impact on the Polish R&I landscape. The Office in Brussels will allow for widening the scope of the NCBR activities and strengthening the voice of the Polish R&I community in Brussels. The Office conducts advisory and information activities to support the presence of Polish organisations in Brussels. The key goal is to strengthen the cooperation of companies, universities, research institutes and other entities with foreign partners under the EU programmes, in particular Horizon Europe. The Office presents the position of Poland in consultations and other processes concerning the research and innovation policy of the EU. The office team participates in meetings, expert bodies and events organised by the European Commission and its agencies, as well as partner institutions from other countries operating in the field of research and innovation in Brussels.
During one of your open lectures, you mentioned that over 70% of the Horizon Europe funds (please correct me if I’m wrong) would cover climate change-related research activities. Does it apply to all disciplines, or are there any areas of particular interest? What are the priority areas of the new funding?
Horizon Europe, being – on one hand – a research and innovation programme, and on the other hand aiming at fulfilling the environmental goals of EU (as an actual embodiment of Green Deal policy in the field of R&I), tries to reconcile both ambitions. Most of the projects financed will contribute to the European Green Deal goals, and the key sectors would be industrial production, energy or transport. However, it should be emphasised that it is about tackling climate change and other environmental issues at stake, e.g. circular economy or biodiversity. Another thing is the digital transformation which is also expected to bring benefits to the environment, as well as enhance the resilience policy, being the consequence of the pandemic and at the same time the application of the Green Deal principles. Thus, the EU focuses on promoting means rather than particular disciplines. The last thing to mention here are the EU Missions, a completely innovative approach to the problems of contemporary societies. There are five mission areas– cancer, soil, healthy oceans, adaptation to climate change, and climate-neutral cities. It is very indicative that EC chose these areas instead of other topics, and 4 of them are directly related to the European Green Deal.
One of the ‘lessons learned’ during the Horizon 2020 framework was supporting “breakthrough innovation”. How to define that type of innovation, and how will it relate it to the new framework?
Breakthrough innovation is defined as an innovation within the company that takes it to the next level. This kind of innovation opens a company to new markets or changes the way customers interact with the market or industry. Breakthrough innovation is fundamentally changing the dynamics of an industry or market. For the first time, the new research and innovation funding programme: Horizon Europe framework programme for 2021-2027 includes a whole new pillar: Innovative Europe, strictly dedicated to supporting breakthrough innovation. The European Innovation Council (EIC) within this pillar is a key novelty of Horizon Europe and represents Europe’s most ambitious innovation initiatives with a budget of €10 billion for the period 2021-2027. The EIC has a mission to identify, develop and scale up breakthrough technologies and breakthrough innovation. The EIC will also support start-ups, SMEs, and research teams developing high-risk, high-impact breakthrough innovation, market-creating, emphasising scaling breakthroughs that contribute to the objectives of the European Green Deal and Recovery Plan for Europe. The European Innovation Council is also structured to help develop the overall European innovation landscape in synergy with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, fostering the integration of the knowledge triangle of education, research, and innovation.
Has COVID-19 affected the framework anyhow?
COVID-19 pandemic impacted the EU’s policies and programmes in a significant way, including the research framework programme. First of all, it demonstrated how crucial it is to invest in research and innovation within the health sector. In spring last year, the European Commission proposed the first “European Research Area vs. CORONA” Action Plan aimed at coordinating short-term research and innovation actions within the EU in ten different areas, such as coordination of funding and clinical trials and access to research infrastructures or data sharing. This action plan is updated on a regular basis. Within the second pillar of Horizon Europe, a new European Partnership on Pandemic Preparedness is being developed. On top of that, in February 2021, the European Commission launched HERA Incubator, which works with researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities in the EU and globally. Its aim is to detect new variants, provide incentives to develop new and adapted vaccines, speed up the approval process for these vaccines, and ensure the scaling up of manufacturing capacities. It will also prepare the ground for the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). First calls in Horizon Europe for urgent research into coronavirus variants were launched already in April 2021.
You mentioned that the new framework would aim at a “new generation of objective-driven and more ambitious partnerships in support of agreed EU policy objectives” – what does it mean? Could you elaborate on this?
Horizon Europe implements a new approach to the EU partnerships tied to future EU policy priorities. Aiming to achieve policy objectives of the European Union, there are planned three types of these joint endeavours: institutionalised, co-programmed and co-funded partnerships. Although there will be fewer partnerships in number, they will have a higher impact than the ones in the last programming period. New partnerships will have a common set of criteria, along the life cycle of partnerships, across all pillars, other programmes, and regulations. They will promote the concept of strategic orientation, encouraging more actors to participate. They will also be ambitious as there will be an improved coherence as partnerships will establish collaboration with other relevant research and innovation initiatives, including missions, which will be reflected in governance models and joint actions. What is more, EU partnerships will be time-limited, and there is planned a phasing-out of the programme funding. The EU also aims to achieve increased openness towards all the partners and promote transparency when it comes to the design, preparation, implementation and promotion of the partnerships. An important aspect of the international dimension with regard to partnership consortium will also be demonstrated.
What desired dimensions of research impact have been highlighted?
With a shift from establishing a larger number of small partnerships to fewer and bigger ones, it is possible to focus and strongly impact priority policy areas. Investments within new European Partnerships will be more direct and dedicated mainly to EU priorities such as the European Green Deal, Digital Europe, engaging more stakeholders while establishing closer ties with EU and national policies. The majority of European Partnerships are established under thematic clusters of ‘Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness’ pillar II of Horizon Europe: Cluster 1 – Health, Cluster 4 – Digital, industry and space, Cluster 5 – Climate, energy and mobility and Cluster 6 – Food, bioeconomy, natural resources, agriculture and environment. There are also partnerships in pillar I – partnerships within research infrastructures and pillar III – partnerships on innovative SMEs. A great number of partnerships will focus on accelerating a transition towards a climate-neutral and digital economy. Therefore, the private sector will be involved in order to decarbonise energy, mobility and the steel sector. There will also be provided solutions for the protection and sustainable management of resources such as water or soil. As for health, some partnerships will seek to build greater resilience of Europe’s health care systems. Technological leadership and autonomy in critical areas will also be covered, such as smart networks and services, artificial intelligence, data and robotics, photonics, hydrogen and batteries.
According to your expertise, what are the strong points of research in Poland regarding this background?
Polish researchers and innovative companies have great potential in almost all fields covered by Horizon Europe. The key challenge is to unlock it and to strengthen the cooperation with European and international partners.
What are the most represented research disciplines considering research conducted in Polish scientific units?
This question should be rather directed to the Ministry of Education and Science and to Statistics Poland. As mentioned before, the crucial success factor for Horizon Europe is finding the best, the most motivated and globally oriented researchers and entrepreneurs, directing them to the right partners, and supporting them in finding the most suitable funding instrument. With so many topics and some parts of the Horizon Europe programme that stay open as it comes to the domain and with bottom-up approach, one cannot say that discipline is key here.
What industries and business sectors will be prioritised regarding cooperation with research units?
The most privileged sectors are energy and transport, but it is misleading to find them winners in terms of earmarked funding. The offered funding in pillar II as the greatest part of Horizon Europe has a top-down approach, which implies that research answers all the needs determined both by the European Commission and the Member States, and there are no sectoral limitations. For example, one of the biggest budget ‘pockets’ is cluster 4 – “Digital, Industry, Space”, surpassing even cluster 5 “Climate, energy, transport”. However, cluster 4 supports, among others, digital solutions in many sectors, along with climate neutrality (‘twin transition’), but not only in the electronics industry or derivatives. It is more about specific solutions that are needed than particular industries involved.
What other EU programmes, besides Horizon Europe, offer interesting opportunities for researchers to get funding for their projects?
At the European level, apart from Horizon Europe, researchers can receive funding from the InvestEU Fund. This is a market-based and demand-driven instrument that aims to stimulate more investments, particularly by the private sector. With the budget guarantee of €6.6 billion, one of its policies focuses on investment in research, innovation and digitalisation, and it is expected to leverage an estimated €90 billion of investments into R&I. This guarantee will back the investment projects of the European Investment Bank (EIB) Group and other financial partners, like Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego in Poland.
At the national level, there will be possibilities to use Cohesion Policy funds. One of the objectives of EU investments in the period 2021-2027 is Smarter Europe through innovation, digitisation, economic transformation and support of small and medium-sized enterprises.
One should know that while designing new funding programmes for the years 2021-2027, the European Commission, together with the Member States, introduced enhanced synergies between those programmes. On the one hand, the aim was to align all the planned actions with strategic priorities in support of a common vision, and on the other hand, to provide beneficiaries with possibilities to combine funding from different programmes. A detailed plan is still under preparation, but a range of EU programmes such as Digital Europe, EU4Health, Creative Europe, and Connecting Europe Facility could also be of interest for potential beneficiaries of Horizon Europe.
NCBR Office in Brussels website
Business & Science Poland website
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Photo: Private archive of Ewa Kocińska-Lange