By Catherine Marston, Welsh higher Education Brussels
European Research and Innovation Days, the flagship research and innovation event of the European Commission, moved online for its 2020 edition, attracting thousands of global participants.
Taking place from 22-24 September, the programme offered 146 sessions across three days arranged thematically by ‘Hubs’ including ‘Horizon Europe’, ‘Missions’, ‘Green Deal’ and ‘International Co-operation’.
Welsh Higher Education Brussels attended a number of sessions with a view to learning more about the Green Deal, the Horizon Europe programme and its ‘Missions’ as well as focusing on EU-international cooperation. Despite the continued uncertainties around UK participation in Horizon Europe the policies that will drive Horizon Europe will shape research and innovation in Europe and beyond, and there will be opportunities for Wales to engage with the programme drawing on our research and innovation strengths to be committed and effective partners.
Research and Innovation Days – number and themes
The conference attracted over 35000 participants from 188 countries, with attendees including at least five European Commissioners as well as representatives from international organisations such as the World Health Organisation. Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, spoke in a number of sessions and set out clear views on the need for research, education, innovation and service to society to be more closely interconnected if Europe is to achieve its aims over the coming decades.
The Research and Innovation Days had a number of purposes. There was a celebratory aspect to showcase European research and innovation, with prizes awarded at different points during the conference. It also aimed to engage with citizens on the challenges of achieving climate neutrality by 2050 and building a resilient and inclusive Europe. The event also highlighted the issues posed by the Covid-19 crisis, with the pandemic demonstrating both the vulnerabilities of society and how research and innovation is rising to the challenges the world is facing.
There were references to some of the more internal debates the European Commission is grappling with such as the budget for the 2021-27 period and the allocation for research and innovation activities. The strong views of the European Parliament for an increased budget for Horizon Europe were clearly conveyed alongside praise for Commissioner Gabriel’s work earlier in the year to speedily shift resources to research on Covid-19.
During the conference the proposals for activities within the ‘Missions’ of Horizon Europe were formally presented to the European Commission. The missions aim to save more lives from cancer, make the EU more climate resilient, restore oceans and waters, achieve 100 climate neutral cities and ensure 75% of Europe’s soils are healthy. While the missions will not be exclusively research-led there will be research elements to their activities. By the end of 2020 the Commission will develop more detailed plans for the next stages of this work.
The Green Deal received prominent billing during the conference with Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for the European Green Deal, highlighting that work in this area must not leave people behind but must bring European citizens on the journey to climate neutrality. The technologies to achieve climate neutrality are available but innovation is needed to scale up and ensure accessibility. Covid-19 has brought forward the need for action on the ‘tectonic challenges’ that the world is facing including geopolitical upheaval, industrial revolution and ensuring biodiversity. Partnership working will be vital to ensure that instruments such as the Horizon Europe programme are used efficiently. At least 35% of the Horizon Europe budget will be linked to the Green Deal so it will shape the programme in a number of ways and it may be useful to consider how the Green Deal and the Wales Net Zero work could align.
There were also more detailed discussions on the recently opened Horizon 2020 Green Deal call which will provide 1 bn euros of funding. John Bell, Director Healthy Planet at the European Commission, outlined how research and innovation will be an enabler for the Green Deal. The Horizon 2020 call is different to previous Horizon 2020 calls as it will be focused on impact and organised by the priorities of the Green Deal with a focus on the shorter-term. Funded projects should have a demonstrable impact over the next decade and prepare the ground for the major work that will be required from 2030 to meet the climate-neutral goal by 2050. As this call is part of Horizon 2020, researchers based at Welsh universities are able to apply for funding.
European Research and Innovation Days 2020 enabled a coherent view of European research and innovation priorities to be presented and a range of voices heard. There is an ambitious agenda for the next decade and beyond, however the difficulties around the financial resources allocated through the European budget and their impact on the ambitions set out during Research and Innovation Days may limit achievements. Regardless of the outcomes of the discussions between the EU and the UK, it will be important for Wales to continue to engage with the European research and innovation agenda as it will not only guide our near neighbours but will also shape global research and innovation activities.
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