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The EU’s R&D policy and institutions
02 June 2018
Last modified: 02 June 2018
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Strategic frameworks for research, development and innovation in the European Union


European Research Area

The European Research Area (ERA) has been a fundamental concept of the European Union’s RDI policy since 2000. The goal set in the Lisbon Treaty envisages “a unified research area open to the world, based on the Internal Market, in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely and through which the Union and its Member States strengthen their scientific and technological bases, their competitiveness and their capacity to collectively address grand challenges”

To complete ERA, member states undertook to take action in five priority areas:

  • more efficient national research systems;
  • optimal transnational cooperation and competition (including the joint tackling of socio-economic challenges, the improvement of quality by enhancing competition at EU level, and the development of research infrastructures);
  • an open labour market for researchers (removing the obstacles to researcher mobility, training and attractive career opportunities);
  • gender equality and gender mainstreaming in research;
  • optimal circulation and transfer of scientific knowledge by developing the digital ERA.

In May 2015 the Competitiveness Council adopted the ERA Roadmap for 2015–2020, developed by the member states and the European Commission and called on the member states to adopt their national ERA action plans and roadmaps. The Roadmap aims to identify the most important priorities for strengthening European research and innovation systems, while providing proper flexibility to member states for defining their priorities when adopting the action plans. The progress of the ERA is summarised annually in the ERA Progress Report based on predefined EU and member state indicators.

The most important measures in this respect:

  • increased focus on the assessment of RDI policies; rationalisation of EU and national instruments;
  • better harmony between joint programming initiatives; optimisation of public investment in research infrastructures by coordinating national and ESFRI priorities and considering long-term sustainability;
  • open, transparent and merit-based recruitment of researchers;
  • implementation of knowledge transfer-related policies at national level in order to disseminate and fully leverage scientific results;
  • promotion of open access to scientific output;
  • development and implementation of joint strategies and actions assisting international scientific and innovation cooperation.

The Roadmap, envisaged to facilitate the completion of the ERA, broadly fits in the context of the EU’s growth strategy and forms the cornerstone of the Europe 2020 Strategy and the Innovation Union initiative. 


The EU2020 strategy

The Europe 2020 strategy is the EU’s agenda for growth and jobs which fundamentally defines the framework of RDI policy until 2020. It has an integrated approach to competitiveness, innovation, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. The strategy holds that growth must be reached in a smart, sustainable and inclusive way, while simultaneously considering objectives relating to employment, R&D, climate change, sustainable energy management, education and the elimination of social exclusion. Research, development and innovation further smart growth and the transfer to a knowledge-based economy. One of the objectives of the strategy is that the European Union should spend 3% of its GDP on research and development. To promote the comprehensive EU objectives, member states governments defined national targets and report on progress in their annual reform programmes. Hungary’s target is to spend 1.8% of its GDP on research and development by 2020.  The implementation of the strategy at national level is monitored by the Commission in the framework of the European Semester based on annual reports.

Europe 2020 strategic objectives

  • Employment
  • 75% of people aged 20–64 to be in work
  • Research and development (R&D)
  • 3% of the EU’s GDP to be invested in R&D
  • Climate change and energy
  • greenhouse gas emissions 20% lower than 1990 levels
  • 20% of energy coming from renewables
  • 20% increase in energy efficiency
  • Education
  • rates of early school leavers below 10%
  • at least 40% of people aged 30–34 having completed higher education
  • Poverty and social exclusion
  • at least 20 million fewer people in – or at risk of – poverty/social exclusion

The Innovation Union initiative

In the framework of the Europe 2020 strategy the Innovation Union is a priority initiative of the European Commission aimed at improving the funding opportunities and conditions of research and innovation to turn innovative ideas into products and services that facilitate growth and employment. The EU’s research and innovation policy addresses societal challenges such as climate change, healthcare, demographic changes, energy and resource efficiency. 

It identifies the modernisation of education and training systems as a key requirement, with special regard to the strengthening of scientific education, the training of the next generations of researchers, and the promotion of interdisciplinary university programmes and e-skills.

The completion of the European Research Area is a central concept of the initiative aimed at eliminating overlaps and unnecessary duplication in research between member states. The efforts of the European Commission and the member states are concentrated to five main areas in this respect:

  • development of human resources;
  • coordination of research programmes;
  • development of research infrastructures;
  • dissemination of knowledge;
  • international science and technology cooperation.

The Innovation Union promotes the removal of obstacles to researcher mobility, the cross-border cooperation of research funding organisations, open access to the results of publicly funded research, open access to member state research infrastructures for member state users, the creation, development and deployment of the key European research infrastructures specified in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), and cooperation in international science and technology. The sources of the EU, and in particular its research framework programmes, should be focused on the Innovation Union priorities.

To improve the framework conditions, the initiative proposes action points for the creation of a single innovation market and for the removal of barriers to business innovation. Special attention is devoted to better access to capital and markets, the application of diversified funding sources, the promotion of demand-side policies, and the introduction of the EU patent.

The financing instruments of the Structural Funds must better serve innovation in particular by focusing on funding national innovation systems, smart specialisation strategies, cross-border projects and social innovation.

The Innovation Union supports joint research initiatives and technology transfer between member states. Intellectual property rights and open access to research outputs must also serve for stimulating creativity.

Innovation Union prefers a new approach based on the partnership of regional, national and EU stakeholders across the research and innovation chain. These partnerships cover areas which evidently call for governmental intervention and where cooperation between the stakeholders is more efficient. The Commission identified several independent conditions which are necessary for the successful implementation of the partnerships. The partnerships have to

  • focus on the EU’s common problems representing clear and measurable objectives;
  • involve stakeholders in the long run;
  • be more efficient through European level implementation;
  • be result-oriented along specific objectives;
  • possess adequate financial support.

The European Union must become a more attractive destination for scientists, researchers and highly qualified third-country nationals. Progress towards the Innovation Union should be measured at European Council level by two headline indicators: the R&D investment target and a new Innovation indicator, as requested by the European Council.


Horizon 2020: the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation promoting discovery research and innovative businesses in a balanced way

With a total budget of EUR 80 billion between 2014 and 2020, the Horizon 2020 framework programme is the most important instrument for implementing the EU’s RDI strategy and policy. The programme (often termed H2020 for short) is one of the main pillars of the “Innovation Union”, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness. H2020 calls are announced by the European Commission and applicants have to apply for funding directly at the European Commission’s institutions.

It is the primary objective of the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme to turn scientific breakthroughs into market-creating, innovative products and services, so it provides funding in all stages of the innovation chain from research to market entry. It puts special emphasis on tackling socio-economic challenges and addressing the common problems of the society of the European Union in areas such as healthcare, energy, transport.

The H2020 framework programme pays special attention to small and medium-sized enterprises: as an important novelty, the European Commission has introduced a new instrument for funding SMEs across the entire innovation chain from the incubation of ideas to market entry. Compared to its predecessors, the new framework programme is characterised by significantly simplified administrative rules and procedures, a more transparent funding system and shorter contracting time through almost entirely electronic application procedures.

The Horizon 2020 programme is built on three pillars:

Excellent science – aims to consolidate the EU’s position as a global leader in scientific excellence.

Industrial leadership- aims to facilitate the EU’s leadership in research, development and innovation through supporting key technologies, wider access to risk and assistance to small and medium enterprises.

Societal challenges – aims to contribute to solving global or and European societal challenges in the fields of key healthcare, food security, sustainable agriculture, energy, transport, climate change, environmental protection, as well as inclusive, innovative and secure societies.

The planning of the next framework programme for the period after 2020 already started in 2017.

József Pálinkás, President of the NRDI Office presented Hungary’s position on research and innovation for the upcoming programming period on 30 November 2017 in Brussels.

The High Level Group headed by Pascal Lamy published its report on the impact of the R&I framework programme on 3 July 2017 which proposed a set of recommendations on how to maximise the impact of future European research and innovation programmes, thus framing a vision for the next framework programme (FP9). The report has a telling title, “LAB-FAB-APP”, which refers to the needs of investing into science and innovation (LABoratory), producing products with high added value (FABrication) and turning solutions into practical applications for the benefit of all (APPlication).  The report put forward 11 recommendations:

  1. Prioritise research and innovation in EU and national budgets: Double the budget of the post-2020 EU research and innovation programme. Member states should invest 3% of their GDP in research, development and innovation. This requires substantial contribution from the private sector, so private investment should be leveraged as much as possible. Co-funding mechanisms with industry countries should be promoted.
  2. Build a true EU innovation policy that creates future markets: Foster ecosystems promoting innovative ideas with rapid scale-up potential, supported by an EU innovation policy which overarches sectoral policies. Innovation, thus, appears horizontally across the different EU policies. A European Innovation Council (EIC) should be installed as a permanent, high-level strategic body empowered to invest in the implementation of innovative ideas with rapid scale-up potential.
  3. Educate for the future and invest in people: Modernise education and training. FP9 (the next R&I framework programme) should include incentives for the modernisation of the academia.
  4. Greater impact: Keeping the three-pillar system of the H2020, these pillars should focus on “science and skills”, “innovation and competitiveness” and “global challenges”. FP9 should promote innovation through each pillar.
  5. Adopt a mission-oriented, impact-focused approach to address global challenges: Set research and innovation missions that address global challenges and mobilise researchers, innovators and other stakeholders to realise them. The UN Sustainable Development Goals should serve as a global reference framework for defining these missions. Progress on these missions should be measured by assessing the outcome of the funded activities. The framework programme should fully integrate social sciences and humanities and continue industrial partnerships. 
  6. Rationalise the EU funding landscape and achieve synergy with structural funds: Design a modernised and user-friendly EU budget privileging healthy competition and transnational collaboration. Funding schemes with similar intervention logic (e.g. COSME) should be combined and innovation-friendly state aid rules should be created. A minimum objective should be to eliminate one third of currently effective R&I funding schemes and instruments The various innovation support schemes should be streamlined with EIC. A substantial proportion of the future structural and agricultural funds should focus on financing R&I projects creating greater coordination between them and the FP9. The FP9 should list the R&I investment priorities of future structural funds. The future EU R&I programme should have a “ring-fenced” amount to spread excellence and widen participation. The resources in this amount should be used to assist regions in setting up transnational, mission-like smart specialisation strategies that complement or support the R&I programme’s objectives.
  7. Simplify further in the management and administration of the framework programme and application procedures.
  8. Mobilise and involve citizens: Stimulate co-design and co-creation through citizen involvement. Maximum use of social media.
  9. Better align EU and national R&I investment: Ensure EU and national alignment where it adds value to the EU’s R&I ambitions and missions.
  10. Make international R&I cooperation a trademark of EU research and innovation: Use the UN Sustainable Development Goals to frame large-scale R&I missions. A positive cooperation model should be established, so that the UK remains part of the European Research Area even after Brexit.  
  11. Capture and better communicate impact: define ‘impact’ beyond GDP capturing for instance impact on science, skills and competences etc., and create a system suitable for automated data collection and project monitoring. The Commission should work with member states to develop a system to measure the impacts of EU R&I programmes at national level in a comparable way.

The EU’s R&D policy and institutions

The EU’s former research and innovation framework programmes (FP):

  • FP7 (2007-2014) 
  • FP6 (2002-2006)
  • FP5 (1998-2002) 

The EU’s institution system responsible for research, development and innovation

According to the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union, the EU has no exclusive competence over research, development and innovation (RDI), so this area should be regulated by the member states.

Therefore, most EU documents on the topic are not legally binding but are rather recommendations, communications and positions in which member states generally make a declaration of intent for the coordinated modification of national RDI policies or ratify the EU’s recommendations and action plans.

The following Directorate-Generals of the European Commission are responsible for RDI programmes and coordination at EU level:

There are other DGs competent in RDI questions, including in particular the following:

website: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/hu/itre/home.html

The above listed websites and the information portals of Committee on Industry, Research and Energy of the European Parliament, the European Research Area, Cordis and the Participant Portal are excellent points of reference for getting and insight into the complex system of RDI institutions in the EU. These websites provide references and summaries about the EU’s RDI actions, for example in relation to the European Research Area. The Research and innovation chapter of the EUR-LEX database, which explains EU legislation in plain English, lists all actions by topic.

Updated: 02 June 2018
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