Why a mission-driven approach will benefit the EU

27 Apr 2021

The launch of the new Horizon Europe framework programme introduces missions as a way to direct research and innovation toward solving some of the grand challenges facing the EU

This March saw the launch of the 2021-2024 strategic plan for Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95.5 billion research and innovation programme. Building on lessons learned from its predecessor, Horizon 2020, the new framework maintains most of its core mechanisms while adapting to new European Commission priorities – including the acceleration of the so-called digital and green twin transitions. 

The renewed focus on research and innovation as a means to navigate the macro-trends facing the EU is a welcome development – but how exactly this vision is reflected within programme structure is key. 

Horizon Europe brings several new elements, including a strengthened open science policy, better integration of social sciences and humanities, a set of simplified rules and procedures, as well as the full launch of the European Innovation Council (EIC), a structure piloted during the Horizon 2020 programme which aims to support, scale and bring breakthrough technologies and innovations to market. 

Beyond the various mechanisms that aim to support the traditional goals of EU science and technology framework programmes – facilitating cross-national cooperation, bridging the gap between science, technology, and industry – Horizon Europe brings a new perspective to directing innovation: missions that aim to address big societal challenges and engage a wide range of EU actors in solving them.   

The five missions of Horizon Europe

Missions are meant to be “high-ambition, high-profile initiatives which will put forward concrete solutions to challenges facing European citizens and society”. The missions aim to be bold, ambitious and inspiring – to tackle the grand societal challenges of the EU and beyond – while also maintaining a clear, measurable, time-bound and realistic direction. While they are yet to reach their final formulation, the European Commission has selected five mission areas: 

  • Adaptation to Climate Change
  • Cancer  
  • Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities
  • Ocean, Seas and Waters
  • Soil Health and Food

The introduction of missions represents a significant evolution from the Science with and for Society element of Horizon 2020 which recognised the need to complement scientific discovery with social awareness and responsibility, but did not go as far as to create the space for integrating societal dialogue into the process of giving direction to research and innovation. Therefore, the Horizon 2020 interim evaluation has concluded that there is a need to shift the programme away from the instrument-centred approach, toward a purpose and impact-driven philosophy.

Climate change and environmental degradation are an existential threat to Europe and the world. To overcome these challenges, Europe needs a new growth strategy that will transform the Union into a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy.

Why a mission-based approach?

In this sense, missions can serve as an important mechanism to align the activities of the programme to broader EU priorities. This helps create synergies with policy, legislation, and other programme frameworks, directing research and innovation toward enabling high-level priorities such as the European Green Deal.  

More importantly, however, a mission-based approach to innovation can act as a key mechanism to ensure legitimacy and public trust and, if executed right, increase the overall success of European innovation – whether that is defined as meeting societal challenges with appropriate solutions, or achieving global competitiveness. 

Firstly, a mission orientation can set the right context for cross-disciplinary research. 

Rather than specialising to meet the exigencies of individual funding programmes, broad missions can incentivise researchers and innovators to look beyond their silos and tackle common goals from multiple angles. Moreover, missions can open up the space for generating solutions to a more diverse array of actors, including entrepreneurs and civil society actors. 

Secondly, missions can increase the legitimacy of research and innovation actions

Beyond the intrinsic value derived from ensuring that funds and efforts are directed toward public good – with the awareness of its beneficiaries – buy-in from society can help fill the gap between discovery and systemic change, and help the transition from a ‘market-fixing’ approach toward ‘market-shaping’. This is crucial for some of the particularly complex problems that the current European Commission aims to tackle which rely not only on the development of new solutions, but require behaviour change, the diffusion of new social norms, and coordinated action at local, national and transnational levels. 

The Covid-19 crisis could serve as a prime example for how important public buy-in is. While significant victories were achieved with vaccines being developed at an unprecedented speed, the EU also had to fight, in parallel, a wave of misinformation and disinformation that fed directly into the disconnect between society and evidence-based decision-making. 

With a research and innovation framework that proactively addresses societal responses to these challenges and invites the public to act as a co-creator of solutions, the systemic impact of discoveries can be greatly enhanced. 

Achieving this, however, entails more than raising awareness about research and innovation. For instance, the board of the oceans, seas and waters Horizon Europe mission (Mission Starfish 2030: Restore our Oceans and Waters) takes relevant steps in this direction, explicitly setting out to fill the knowledge and emotional gaps needed to spark public imagination and engagement on the topic through concrete actions such as literacy programmes or citizen science projects.    

Finally, the outcome-oriented approach of missions can allow the EU to select the most appropriate combination of innovation methods according to the nature of the target issue.

Complex issues such as the Horizon Europe missions often require a mix of actions that allow for both top-down direction and bottom-up experimentation. Challenge prizes are a good example of how this can work – they are inherently outcome-driven, and can allow organisers to center their focus on the goal rather than the method. At the same time, the openness of challenge prizes creates opportunities for a wider array of innovators to generate solutions to the target problem, reducing the risk that funders often face when selecting a single innovator through more traditional approaches such as grants.    

Ultimately, the introduction of missions has the potential to enable the EU research and innovation framework programme to go beyond its role as a platform facilitating cross-European collaboration, and instead direct that very cooperation toward tackling the grand challenges that transcend internal and external borders alike. 

As news about deliberation on the five proposed missions is set to come in throughout the following months, how exactly this will be achieved, and where Horizon Europe will create opportunities for citizen engagement will become evident.         

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