Scientific research through a lens of policy

Research support frameworks – a rundown 

The benefits of publicly funded research opportunities cannot be debated. Horizon Europe Programme, and its initiatives, such as the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and the various grants of the European Research Council provide crucial opportunities for researchers to advance their projects – as long as they make an impact.

The Horizon Europe Programme has a complex structure. It builds on 3 pillars, dubbed “Excellent Science”, “Global Challenges & European Industrial Competitiveness” and “Innovative Europe”. The budget, however, is not distributed evenly between the three. Pillar one, “Excellent Science” which includes the Marie-Skłodowska Curie Actions and the European Research Centre Grants is admittedly more open-ended, targeted at researchers engaging in “frontier projects” and doctoral programmes, however the bulk of the funding concerns Pillar two and three, for which almost 70% of the budget is allocated to. These deal with specific societal challenges and market creating innovation (European Commission, 2022).

In addition to this, the Horizon programme applies an “impact-driven framework” that allows constant monitoring, and organises the calls around destinations and missions – thus, establishing a clearly defined target, within a certain timeframe. Determining goals and deadlines anchors the abstractions of policy goals to reality. But – as anchors do – by fixing research to a set point, they may also limit the movement of a researcher on the wide, and occasionally wild oceans of science.

Curiosity, potential, or utility

As our investigation of Horizon opportunities show above, funding structures for research in a policy environment support utilitarian views on science. This is  not particularly surprising – the role of policy is increasing public welfare and the general quality of life, therefore policy operates on values and utility, and it tends to perceive science as something that needs to adapt to that. In this context, always having a general direction, and oftentimes, an end-goal (that is more defined that finding an elusive “truth”) may appear as a straightforward direction. Targets, guidelines and deadlines may undoubtedly help to achieve a certain task, but they may also raise barriers to things beyond the scope of said task. Having a defined objective as an end-point is hardly compatible with the tenet of constant progress towards truth, to which some science-philosophers subscribe to from the school of scientific realism (Leplin, 1984). In this sense, the utilitarian view policy has on science may limit potential – despite potential being something that may bring even more utility. But there’s an emphasis on “may” – the uncertainty of which struggles to fit in the policy landscape.

Widening horizons – a gamble in strange times

To summarise, policymakers – rather unsurprisingly – understand science in a policy-centred way. To cater for more experimental research, a novel perspective may be necessary, as the current system perpetuates science solving issues according to the current “scientific playbook”, however does not support achieving what Kuhn calls “paradigm shifts” (1962) that would potentially provide innovative solutions by changing the playbook itself – although admittedly, these are hard to come by, and not easy to find without experimentation that, if without result, may be seen in the current policy framework as a “sunken cost”.

Thinking realistically, the opportunity is hard to find to introduce such new perspectives, even more so due to the crises of the recent years. Amongst others, the increasingly serious effects of global warming, the need for innovation in the energy market, accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the threat of infectious diseases all contribute to the mounting challenges that need specific, scientific responses, rather than promising, yet unsure potential solutions. Therefore, it is crucial that we don’t think in terms of a complete, foundational reform. What the Horizon programme offers is much needed in this day and age, and it is clear that reducing its capacities for sheer experimentation would be far from beneficial in this period. However, perhaps introducing new perspectives could be achieved without juggling with resources. Rather, parallel to the existing utilitarian approach which is important to keep, the more experimental, frontier research directions could be assessed differently, and widened in a way that it can accommodate scientists – and entities beyond individual researchers, such as and consortia – who are led by curiosity, and by the rather archaic, but still poetic view on science that is the “pursuit of truth”.

Marton Kottmayer
EuChemS Science Communication & Policy Officer


European Commission (2022). “Horizon Europe (HORIZON) Programme Guide”. pp. 7-11. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/funding-tenders/opportunities/docs/2021-2027/horizon/guidance/programme-guide_horizon_en.pdf [Acessed at 12.11.2022]
Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press: Chicago
Leplin, J. (1984). Scientific Realism. University of California Press: Los Angeles. pp. 1-2