Hey, big spender! Here’s how the European Commission intends to ‘greenify’ innovation with €14.7 billion worth of research funds

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The European Commission has laid out its 2021-2022 spending priorities for the bloc’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, with projects under the green, digital and health banners set to come in for substantial funding.

As part of the €14.7 billion package over the next two years, particular attention has been given to supporting the EU’s green agenda, with €5.8 billion put aside to support research projects that examine the ways in which the bloc can better tackle challenges raised by climate change. Here, the EU executive will aim to back initiatives that accelerate the transition towards clean energy and mobility, as well as support the wider bio-economy.

Opportunities for funding will be announced through various calls for proposals published periodically on the Commission’s Funding and Tenders portal, and are open to researchers and firms that prove how their project parallels with the work programmes outlined by the EU executive.

A Green Deal for Start-up Research

The ‘green’ research funds, the EU’s Commissioner for Research and Innovation Mariya Gabriel told reporters on Wednesday (16 June), should go towards projects that assist the bloc in its goal to become the first climate-neutral continent between now and 2050.

“It will be used to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate a transition towards clean energy and more sustainable types of mobility,” Gabriel said. “About 35% of this program will be used for this purpose.”

For Europe’s startup community, the increased attention on green initiatives will encourage innovators to direct more resources into projects that foster sustainability.

This comes after the launch of the European Innovation Council, a funding platform designed to support ‘disruptive’ innovation, previously piloted under Horizon 2020, the EU’s erstwhile R&D funding framework.

Last year, the framework supported the growth of 64 European ‘Green deal’ startups with a €307 million outlay. The projects that the Commission supported at the time may give a good indication into the types of research and development that it would like to pursue under Horizon Europe. Specifically, such included solutions for sustainable lighting, efforts to decrease water pollution, environmentally-friendly air travel, and projects designed to preserve biodiversity.

Innovators encouraged in data research projects

Elsewhere in the Horizon Europe 2021-2022 programme, €4 billion has been set aside to invest in projects that assist the bloc’s digital transition. Of relevance here is a concerted effort to make sure that the EU can make the most of its industrial data troves, in pursuance of objectives laid out in the Commission’s 2020 Data Strategy, in which the executive seeks to significantly increase the ease at which non-personal data is shared between public and private entities.

The data strategy includes the proposal to establish nine common EU data spaces across sectors including healthcare, agriculture and energy. As for Horizon Europe, data-enabled research here is the key, as is the goal of supporting “open access for all European researchers and stimulating the up-take of open science and open data practices.”

Health innovation: A new horizon

And it is within Europe’s data spaces that a third priority for funding in Horizon Europe for 2021-22 takes on an added relevance in the current climate. €1.9 billion has been earmarked for research initiatives that assist the bloc’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. This includes projects that can support the establishment of a European Health Data Space, which will aim to encourage the sharing and reuse of health data to create a single market for digital health services. The Commission hopes that this would in turn lead to innovation in the sector, including the development of products in the remote surgery and tele-health markets.

For the time being, the Commission has launched up a public consultation on the plans for the creation of a European Health Data Space, which is open until the end of July.

Missions and Innovations for Africa

One novel area of research introduced by Horizon Europe is the establishment of so-called ‘missions,’ that aim to “address global challenges that affect our daily lives.” Five missions covering research across climate, cancer, oceans, smart cities and soil health have already been identified, and the Commission’s Gabriel confirmed on Wednesday that a first set of actions as part of the missions would be published this autumn.

Elsewhere, the funding framework also seeks to build up more public-private partnerships in the research arena, as well as fostering ‘targeted actions’ with third country-partners, including an innovative ‘Africa Initiative’ which will promote actions “targeted to finding locally adapted solutions to challenges that are global in nature, but which often hit Africa the hardest.” As part of the initiative, Horizon Europe’s 2021-22 work programme foresees 40 areas of targeted research, with a budget of around €350 million.

Around €95.5 billion has been earmarked for Horizon Europe’s entire duration between 2021 to 2027, and the ongoing work programmes through that period are likely to follow a similar political trend, in terms of prioritizing Europe’s green and digital transitions.

“Now that we’ve approved the Horizon Europe programme for 2021 and 2022, we have paved the way for the next stage,” Gabriel said on Wednesday. “That is to say, building a Europe that is going to be greener, more digital and more resilient.”

“I’m calling on all researchers and innovators to be ambitious. It is only by working together, that we are going to be able to achieve our objectives.”

Featured image credit: W.S. Coda / Unsplash

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