In its healthy waters mission, the European Union aims to eliminate plastic pollution by boosting recycling.

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The European Union today revealed proposed objectives for its much-hyped “missions,” which will concentrate research funding on tackling problems in five broad areas: cancer, adapting to climate change, carbon-neutral cities, healthy waters, and soil health. The missions could receive hundreds of millions of euros per year from Horizon Europe, the forthcoming 7-year €81 billion research program, and additional funds from other EU programs.

The five reports published today contain the recommendations of the advisory boards charged with designing the missions, made up of scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs and other luminaries. Each proposes long-term goals and more detailed interim targets, which the European Commission will review before making its final decision.

But it is still unclear how the missions will be organized and managed, and what their budgets will be, casting some doubt on whether they will be ready by the January 2021 start of Horizon Europe. The “fundamental challenge” is “how you go from the big targets to the operationalization,” says Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. He suspects some mission grant calls will be launched on time, but “we will only really see what they will look like in their entirety after two or three years.” Nevertheless, Palmowski argues the plans are “remarkably well advanced,” considering politicians didn’t agree on the five topics until March 2019.

That agreement followed some torturous arguments about wording. For example, haggling among island nations, those with big coastlines, and landlocked countries meant that the mission on “oceans and healthy waters” became “healthy oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters.” That mission is now being planned under the snappier provisional title of “Starfish 2030,” says Pascal Lamy, the former World Trade Organization director-general and EU trade commissioner who chairs its board. Within five broad goal areas, such as decarbonization and regeneration of ecosystems (plotted on the five limbs of a starfish), the report includes specific objectives to be achieved by 2030, such as reducing carbon emissions from the shipping sector by 45% and phasing out bottom trawling.

“People roughly understand that we have a problem in the atmosphere,” says Lamy, a former French naval officer. “They don’t take it that we have a problem with the hydrosphere. They don’t really connect what happens on the Mont Blanc glacier and what happens in the Mediterranean Sea.” The board is also drafting a children’s edition of the report, Lamy adds.

The “Conquering Cancer” mission, meanwhile, would aim to prevent three million cancer deaths by 2030 through better prevention and treatment, and to improve rehabilitation for cancer survivors. The report proposes the creation of an EU-wide platform for sharing cancer research, to be called UNCAN.eu, and improving access to early cancer screening.

The cancer mission would cover not only medical research but also policy, such as coordination of alcohol taxes, says mission board chair Walter Ricciardi, president of Italy’s National Institute of Health. “You cannot be serious in fighting cancer if you don’t target and tackle the determinants of cancer, which in many cases are risk factors related to behavior,” he says.

The fact the missions won’t focus exclusively on research has raised concerns that some of Horizon Europe’s budget might be diverted from research, although the missions could receive additional funds from other programs. “The key concern is that these were always supposed to be R&I [research and innovation] missions,” Palmowski says. “There’s a lot of non-R&I content in there.” He says another concern is that the plans focus on applied research, leaving little room for basic science. Partially agreed legislation would limit the missions’ share of Horizon Europe—for the first three years—to 10% of the program’s targeted top-down pillar. The size of that pillar hasn’t yet been agreed, but it could be more than half of Horizon Europe’s total budget.

Mariana Mazzucato, an economist at University College London who developed the mission concept, says the point of them is to achieve certain outcomes, not to support particular sectors. Missions allow you “to design policy in a way that’s less about handouts, guarantees, subsidies, or random lists of sectors,” she says.

Mazzucato says it’s “too early to tell” whether the EU’s approach to her idea will work, but to keep the missions on track, she argues they should be led by purpose-built agencies reporting directly to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, not to the research policy department. If each mission is left to a committee of assorted interests, then “it’s by definition going to get watered-down,” she says.



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