H2020 should focus on innovative collaborative discovery research, not on technology readiness

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To forge better links not only between university research laboratories but also with companies, there should be more room for bottom-up, collaborative research in the EU’s framework research programme – specifically in Horizon 2020’s pillars II and III. Today, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) issues a Note to call attention to this issue.

To do so, the existing, solid, architecture of H2020 does not require major changes. But LERU does propose one simple and effective measure: a more balanced distribution of Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) in the various calls of the 2018-19 work programme of H2020, particularly in the Industrial Leadership (II) and the Societal Challenges (III) pillars.

An analysis by LERU has revealed that the 2014-15 and 2016-17 calls, particularly in pillar III, but also in pillar II, are disproportionally skewed towards projects at the higher TRLs (five and above, on a scale from one to nine). “This”, says main author Prof. Peter Lievens (KU Leuven), “compromises opportunities to pursue the most innovative, collaborative discovery research. It can skew scientific projects towards short-term applications and can lead to risk-averse approaches to economic and societal impact”.

The TRL framework (originally developed by NASA) reduces the research, development, and innovation process to a linear pipeline. Alternative views nowadays value much more the importance of open and more circular descriptions of the process, including the importance of multiple contributing technologies and feedback at various stages of the innovation chain. Prof. Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General of LERU, comments: “Broad-based research- intensive universities such as the LERU members perform research at all TRL levels and interact with many other organisations that are part of this complex ecosystem”.

LERU does recognise that collaborative discovery research is possible via the Future and Emerging Technology (FET Open and FET Proactive, in particular) scheme in pillar I (Excellent Science). In fact, the oversubscription of the FET scheme illustrates the opportunities it could bring to pillars II and III of Horizon 2020.

LERU believes that the inclusion of more, low TRL calls (TRL 1 to 3) will allow Europe to harness the full breadth of its scientific excellence in order to contribute to solutions for both the short-term andlong-termchallengesofsociety.

In the short term, a clearer indication of the TRL achievable in the timeframe of the proposed project, will help to reduce the number of mismatched projects. “In the longer term”, says Deketelaere, “we would like to see new approaches for future EC research programmes to better target collaborative discovery research creating opportunities across universities and industry”. LERU will return to this point in a statement on the interim evaluation of H2020 later this autumn and in its future comments on the development of the next EU research framework programme (FP9). 

In the face of global competition for research talent and resources, there are great benefits to be reaped from Europe investing in collaborative, interdisciplinary and intersectoral discovery research to produce scientific breakthroughs and paradigm shifts. Coupled with better and more open mechanisms encouraging industry to exploit the results, this will lead to more innovative outcomes.

In the Note LERU also calls on national funding agencies to acknowledge the utmost importance of a balanced distribution of funding for research spanning the broad range of activities that have all contributed to the progress in science in the past.