On the eve of Horizon Europe, a webinar delved deeper into the implementation of EU research missions. Speakers from the Commission and the mission boards joined experts on mission-driven research & innovation to explore the prospects and pitfalls for the implementation of the European moonshots. The webinar was organised jointly by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Netherlands house for Education and Research.

How to implement missions in Horizon Europe

Turning missions into actions

How to translate the missions in Horizon Europe into concrete actions? After the mission boards presented their vision on the five mission areas in September, it is now time to turn the lofty ambitions into calls for research projects. The webinar ‘From Mission Board to Research Call’ brought together four experts on the topic: Hein Pieper, member of the Mission Board for adaptation to climate change including societal transformation, Robert Schröder, responsible policy officer in the European Commission, Jeanet Bruil, coordinator of the Dutch Research Agenda at the Dutch National Research Council, and Amber Geurts, expert on mission-driven innovation at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. More than 180 people from across Europe tuned in to listen to the discussion, which was organised jointly by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Netherlands house for Education and Research (Neth-ER).

Missions to build resilient Europe

The missions are a novelty, started Hein Pieper. They aim to build resilience across Europe, allowing the EU to cope with unforeseen challenges in the future. Thus, they are meant to challenge researchers, to make business and politicians sweat when they are implemented and to inspire the financial sector to rethink their investments. They do so by aligning research activities with concrete challenges that are identified through citizen engagement. According to Pieper, the missions reports presented in September should represent systemic change, as they propose goals and ambitions that cannot be achieved within the limits of the current economic model, nor by research and innovation alone.

Creating societal impact

The missions bring together two concrete objectives, Robert Schröder continued. First, they make it possible to engage with citizens. Because its goals are more specific, it is easier to understand what a mission is set to achieve and why this would require EU funding. Second, the missions change how the EU allocates this funding. Each mission will consist of a portfolio of specific projects that work together to achieve the goals of the mission a whole. As such, the Commission hopes to increase impact beyond individual R&I activities. This question of impact returned in the ensuing discussion when Jeanet Bruil underlined the importance of thinking about the broader context of research funding. The decisions of a research funder, Bruil said, not only work toward funding researchers but also toward achieving other goals. By including certain criteria in the evaluation process, such as outreach to citizens or impact, research funders can steer projects in a certain direction.

Towards an implementation plan

If the work thus far concerned the ‘what,’ Pieper explained, we reach the phase of figuring out how to implement the missions, which includes actions outside the scope of Horizon Europe. In this regard, the coming six months are crucial, added Schröder, as the Commission and the Mission Boards will prepare an implementation plan for each mission. These plans will look at the goals of each mission, how they can be achieved, which actions are necessary, when these should be taken and who should be responsible for that. They will also name funding sources for each action. For research and development actions, this funding will come primarily from Horizon Europe, but if a mission tends more towards deployment and demonstrations, other funding sources are needed. Amber Geurts added that taking stock is crucial. Based on her research, it appears that the pitfall of mission-driven innovation is too broad a scope. To keep a mission manageable and effective, it is crucial to know what knowledge, technologies and activities are out there. A landscape analysis can reveal what is already available and allows for compartmentalisation into concrete research actions. This avoids duplication.

Implementation plans due in June

The tentative date for the implementation plans is late June, Schröder said. Based on this analysis, the Commission will decide over summer which missions will go ahead. This could be all five, but it might also be decided that one or two mission are not ready to be developed further at this stage. In terms of funding, Horizon Europe can contribute 400 million euros in the first three years of the programme. However, it is expected that the implementation plans will find additional funding from other European and even national programmes. These plans, in turn, are preceded by smaller preparatory actions of five million euros to each mission, which are supposed to lay the foundation for further action after summer. The specifics of these preparatory actions are yet to be decided.

Figuring out the ‘how’

Moving from designing the missions to implementation poses a number of dilemmas. For instance, citizen engagement was mandatory when drafting the mission reports and each mission board met with citizen groups on several occasions. Can this be continued in the implementation phase and what will come of citizen involvement when the individual projects start? Moreover, Geurts said, citizen engagement is understood very differently across Europe, so a universal approach might not work. Another question pertains the composition of the mission boards, Pieper said. The members of the missions boards were selected based on their understanding of societal challenges and their ability to define concrete objectives, whereas the focus now shifts towards project planning and management. Schröder expects the composition of the mission boards will change to reflect this shift. According to Bruil and Geurts, apart from managing a portfolio of actions, the boards could also help the Commission to monitor progress or identify synergies across the missions.

Aim for success

In his final remarks, Schröder considered what a successful mission would look like to him. Apart from the research goals, his hope is that the general public will recognise the mission-driven approach for what it is: a radical change in policymaking. By involving citizens, bridging different disciplines and sectors, and weaving research & innovation into general policy considerations, the missions in Horizon Europe have the potential to be a watershed moment for how the EU operates.

You can watch the recording of the webinar here.