Week Seven: New research over the Horizon

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Friday, July 14, 2017


Lisa McDonald

This week I got to step outside the world of U.S. research for a bit and see a different approach: research funding in the EU.

The route that led to this investigation began on Monday, when my mentor was trying to decide what to do with me. I missed Wednesday and Thursday for the next round of tours to other interns’ work placement sites—NASA Goddard and NIST, respectively—so my ability to cover a hearing was limited. One of my team members suggested I help another member with her research for an article on the European Union’s current seven-year research funding program, Horizon 2020. She agreed and I began digging into the history of research funding in the EU.

This topic was not only new to me but to the rest of the FYI team as well. FYI’s focus is on American science policy, and rarely writes full-length Bulletins on anything outside this jurisdiction. However, with the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU, and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, taking a brief foray into science policy across the Atlantic is an important task we owe our readership. Yet since this is not something FYI commonly does, it means we needed to do a lot of research on the topic.

I made some surprising discoveries while exploring the web. Did you know…

  • The EU was not formally established until November 1993? So recent!
  • Various institutions of the EU existed prior to the formation of the EU? Specifically, the European Council was the entity that created the first of the researching funding programs in 1984 (the programs, of which Horizon 2020 is the most recent, are called the Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development).
  • Europe’s specialty is in the medium-high tech sector, like automobiles and machine tools? That is why Europe is losing ground economically to Asian countries who specialize in high-tech sectors like information and computer technology, and why Horizon 2020 shifted the focus of EU research from technological to innovative.
  • There are currently 28 member states in the EU? If the UK officially withdraws in 2019, the EU will have to decide if they will treat the UK like an Associated Country (like Switzerland) or like a Third Country (like the U.S.).
  • The most ambitious earth observation project to date came from a joint effort between the EU and the European Space Agency? The project, called Copernicus, has 30 satellites circling the Earth to monitor air pollution and climate and watch ocean currents and ice flows, and provides all the data free to the entire world.

What surprised me most was the similar criticisms made about both Horizon 2020 and ARPA-E (the agency my first full-length Bulletin was written on). Both programs fund projects the private sector will not invest in for various reasons—e.g., too much risk, too slow of return—so it is expected a fair share of the funded projects will fail. However, leaders in both programs have drawn criticism for sometimes playing it “too safe” by only funding projects that appear to demonstrate a high probability of success, instead of projects more likely to fail. No matter where you are in the world, no one likes to purposely fail, even when the aim of the program is to frequently expect such things.

Though originally the goal was to just help do some research for the article, my team member, Alexis, appreciated the help so much she let me by-line with her on it! With three more weeks to go, I now have two sole authorship and one co-wrote article by-lines to my name. I can’t wait to see what I can accomplish in the last fifteen days!

Lisa McDonald