Moonshots may never see liftoff without a plan

The European Unions boldest proposal for promoting innovation in its next seven-year budget may not make it out of 2018 alive.

The European Commission would like to liven up its dreary research program by funding moonshot-style “missions” from 2021 onward, spending millions of euros on projects that incite child-like enthusiasm.

But the Council of the EU and the European Parliament say the Commission hasnt provided enough details on that part of the Horizon Europe research program, and they arent eager to sign off on a blank check.

That disagreement risks undermining the essence of the Commissions proposal. Legislators could even give up on the idea altogether as they rush to get Horizon Europe signed off by spring.

Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas says missions would help people feel more connected to EU-funded science, while tackling some of societys biggest problems. Missions could focus on things like decreasing the burden of dementia, ridding the oceans of plastic or helping 100 cities become carbon-neutral by 2030, according to Mariana Mazzucato, the economist charged with developing the concept.

Research missions “could be really effective if you focus on [a small number of] areas where Europe could really achieve something,” said Cécile Vernant, head of EU office for global development NGO Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung (DSW).

Given that the missions wont start until 2021, the Commission argues that it would be a mistake to nail down goals too far in advance. “You dont know exactly what will be the challenges,” Moedas told reporters in June. “It would also be a bit arrogant of us to say we are the Commission, we impose those missions.”

The trouble is that the rest of the Brussels legislative machine is not thrilled about the lack of a blueprint. Both the Council and Parliament aim to take a position on Horizon Europe this year, and the Parliaments lead negotiator, German MEP Christian Ehler, said they need a clearer plan.

The Commission has suggested charging committees of national experts with signing off on missions once theyve been proposed, but national governments and MEPs want more say.

Ehlers draft report asks that Parliament and Council be given the final signoff. The Commission should have “the needed time … to come up with a proposal,” Ehler said, but “then the co-legislators are going to say yes or no.”

“The European Commission will clearly have to submit proposals regarding [the selection and implementation of missions],” the Austrian Council presidency said after the final meeting of research ministers before the summer break, describing the concept as “incomplete.”

The first ideas for missions are expected to be put forward in the fall, the Commission said. Up to €10 billion could be up for grabs by 2027.

The Commission said it plans to establish mission boards for each subject area with around 15 people and “a mixture of personalities.”

When it comes to deciding the topics, the Commission received 1,191 responses to a public consultation. An early internal planning document suggested the number of missions chosen could be as low as three to five, however.

But theres already concern Horizon Europe wont have enough money to fund existing programs. “If we stick with the €94 billion [for research proposed by the Commission] we might not see much of missions,” Ehler said.

Civil society groups are eager to have a say on the topics. “We are hoping this will not only be a ticking-the-box exercise and that they will meaningfully involve us,” Vernant said.

“Its really the-hen-and-the-egg problem,” Ehler said. “If you dont know what the missions are, you dont know whos going to define what kind of missions we are going to choose.

“Everyone in Europe is opening their drawers looking for missions,” he added.

This article is part of the autumn 2018 policy primer.

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