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Canadian Universities, Agencies Gear Up for Horizon Europe Membership

A deal for Canada to join the EU’s big R&D programme sets off a flurry of preparation by universities, government agencies. Grant applications could start next year under a ‘transitional arrangement’, say EU officials

Canada’s research community is rushing to organise the people and programmes needed to take full advantage of a deal opening the door to the EU’s big Horizon Europe research programme.

Universities in Canada are expanding their grant offices and forging new European alliances, while the federal government is planning funding and advisory systems. As announced on 24 November, Brussels and Ottawa plan to sign a formal agreement by mid-2024 for Canada to become an associate member of the €95.5 billion EU programme – meaning Canadian researchers will be able to apply for EU funding alongside European partners.

After years of discussion, “We’re excited this is finally happening, and we’re going to do everything we can to make it a success,” said Ted Hewitt, president of Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Yves Joanette, associate vice-rector for research at the University of Montreal agreed, “It’s very good news. We are pursuing our preparations” to start applying for EU grants.

Champagne notwithstanding, some key information is still missing from the governments: they provided no news on the total budget available to Canadians. But on the timing, a European Commission official told Science|Business that the agency “could” decide to set up a “transitional arrangement” under its 2024 budget that, pending final signature of the Canadian deal, would permit Canadian researchers to start applying for grants early next year. It made a similar arrangement when New Zealand agreed to join the programme.

Certainly, Canadian universities are eager to get started. “Our hope is that as soon as the bell rings, we will be able to bring forward really compelling [grant] proposals” to EU funders, said Chad Gaffield, CEO of U15, an association of Canada’s top-rated universities.

Horizon’s expansion to Canada is the latest in a series of deals the EU is seeking with other developed economies. New Zealand and the UK joined this year, and discussions are underway with Switzerland, Korea and Japan. The Canadian deal is currently focused on Horizon’s main, collaborative-research grants in energy, health, digital and other sectors – but, Canadian officials said, it could in time expand to include other parts of Horizon, such as the European Research Council’s fundamental science grants and the Marie Skłowdowska Curie Actions for student exchanges.

Getting ready

Preparations of one kind or another have been underway in Canada for some years – with first public discussion of possible Horizon membership in 2018. Shortly after, Ottawa announced a facility in its New Frontiers in Research Fund to subsidise Canadians joining EU and other international programmes at their own expense – a not-uncommon arrangement that big labs make to plug into global research networks. Hewitt said Canadians in about 20 Horizon projects had received New Frontiers support in this way, involving C$10 million (€6.7 million) to C$15 million in all.

University administrators say these recipients – plus other researchers who brought their own money to EU projects – will probably form the first group of Canadian grant-seekers in Horizon, because they’re already familiar with how EU projects work, and have their EU partner-alliances already established. At McGill University, for instance, there are some researchers that already have “a good working relationship” with European project partners. Now they “would be able to move in on this [EU grants system in fairly rapid order,” said Martha Crago, vice principal for research and innovation at McGill.

Canadian universities have already been organising staff and events to assist researchers looking for EU money. For instance, McGill and the University of Montreal have each hired an extra grants office staff member to start preparations. The universities are also sharing intelligence: earlier this month, representatives of Quebecois universities met EU officials at a Horizon explainer conference in Montreal.

The universities are also strengthening their ties with European counterparts. This year, for instance, Canada’s U15 group signed a cooperative agreement with the German university association (also called U15) and another with its French counterpart, UDICE. Deals are happening university-by-university as well. Officials from the University of Montreal recently visited University of Lyons-1, to strengthen future connections for joint Horizon applications.

The Canadian federal government, meanwhile, is expected soon to name National Contact Point organisations to act as clearing houses of Horizon information. The country’s research councils may also set up a coordinating group to share information. And they expect planning meetings with EU officials to start early next year – discussing which specific topics would make good areas for Horizon collaboration. Under the association deal, Canada won’t have a vote on Horizon planning, but it will be invited to planning meetings.

The budget problem

But the biggest question now is in Ottawa, not Brussels: How much money is involved?

That’s because, under the deal, Canada must pay into the central Horizon money pot, so its researchers can compete alongside European partners for grants out of the pot. Ultimately, Canada is paying its own way to join the programme; its payments, the thinking goes, can produce a net gain from the better science and technology that comes from collaborating with other experts across the ocean. That would also promote EU-Canada trade, as their companies pick up the new technologies.

More specifically, an EU official said, the final Canadian agreement “will indicate negotiated fixed amounts to be paid by Canada on an annual basis, covering the years 2024 – 27.” The sum will have two components, “an operational contribution devised to cover the country’s participation in proportion of commitment appropriations, and a participation fee (a % of the operational contribution).” Further, “an automatic correction mechanism” will be specified to correct “any imbalance between the amount received from the programme by the country’s entities and the amount paid by the country for its participation in the programme, taking into account the costs of management, execution and operation of the programme.”

But that still leaves unanswered the question of the scale of funding that’s likely to be involved. Canada’s innovation ministry didn’t respond to Science|Business requests for information.

The sticking point, Canadian university administrators say, is how much the federal government is willing to commit at its next annual budget announcement, in February or March of 2024. As it is, Canadian academics have been bemoaning the relatively meagre R&D funding already allocated by Ottawa. There has been no significant research budget increase for two years, and in fact the government – worried about inflation – recently asked departments to prepare plans for budget cuts over the next five years. As it is, Canada’s R&D spending as a percent of gross domestic product is among the lowest of major economies, at just 1.7% of gross domestic product in 2021, according to the OECD. That’s about the level of Hungary and Estonia; by contrast, the US is at 3.5%.

As a further complication, federal Canadian elections will happen by October 2025 at the latest, and the political scene is already heating up. A recent government-commissioned report publicly documented the need for increased research funding, to keep up with the money the US is now pouring into semiconductor, green energy and other tech fields. But inflation is a big worry in Canada as elsewhere, and the opposition Conservative party appears to be looking for ways to cast the current government as spendthrift.

So one fear is that the government will simply shuffle money from existing research programmes towards its Horizon contribution, rather than increasing the total amount of money available.

As for the timing of all this, the EU official said that, legally, before any money can be paid out, the formal Canada-EU agreement needs to be signed “in the course of 2024” – and that requires “domestic validation procedures” to take place on both sides. But the actual application process could get started before that, said the official in an email.

“Given the imminence of the association, the Commission COULD decide to start applying a transitional arrangement to Canada already earlier in 2024 for the calls that will be funded from the budget appropriations of year 2024. With such a transitional arrangement, Canadian applicants WOULD be treated already as if Canada were an associated country throughout the process, from admissibility and eligibility to evaluation, up until the preparation of grant agreements. However, grant agreements with beneficiaries established in Canada on the basis of the association agreement can only be signed when the association has started applying.”

Source: Science Business

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