24 Nov A conversation with… Anxo Moreira
Horizon Europe, the new R + D + i framework program is just around the corner. It is true that COVID-19 is causing it to suffer delays and that today we should have much more information than we currently have. And to cover these thirst for knowledge today I have Anxo Moreira. Those of you who have been around for a long time, like me, when it comes to managing European funds, I know very well that you have used Anxo hundreds of times. He has a degree in Business Administration and Management from the University of Vigo, with almost 20 years of experience in European R & D & I projects. He has been an expert in the PEOPLE Program Committee of the 7th Framework Program between November 2008 and September 2011. Those of us who have had contact with the university world also know him because he has been a member of the Working Group of European projects of RedOTRI between 2008 and 2016 (being its coordinator between 2010 and 2015).
Although undoubtedly its world fame began in September 2013, when it was incorporated as the National Contact Point for Legal and Financial Aspects for the Horizon 2020 program. At that time we all managed European projects, we saw the light since Anxo makes these issues so complex are easy to understand (which is greatly appreciated!). And it is just at the end of 2014 when I met him. The exact moment of how Anxo had to start putting up with me until today I’ll leave it to you for the closing😊
None of us is surprised that we have learned (and continue to learn) so much with him since he participates as a teacher in different specialized masters in Innovation and European Policies. He has been director of the Technical Area of R + D + I of the University of Vigo between 2014 and 2018. Currently, he works in the Office of International Projects of the UVIGO.
With such a CV it was clear that I had to interview him to get his opinion about what is to come in Horizon Europe from a quite operational point of view, as well as how to get some tips to take advantage of these inter-program periods: indicators, sustainability, news in the cost structure, opportunities for universities …
Start a chat with Anxo Moreira.
Question: Anxo, to put us in the situation a bit, can you tell us when and how you began to be interested in European R & D & I projects?
Answer: When is clear, I started with this when I entered the OTRI of the University of Vigo in July 2001. The how is another story, I would say that almost by chance, since the OTRI worked in different areas ( patents, spin-off, promotion …) and I “had to” start helping with European projects (as an anecdote, at that time the budget and justification were made in ECUs, a currency that did not circulate, but was listed). Little by little I got more involved in the subject, and European projects were gaining importance and relevance at UVIGO, and thus, in 2007, almost coinciding with the beginning of the 7th Framework Program, and with the support of the Eurociencia program “we left the OTRI and we started to function as a kind of “Office of European projects” (although with different names,
Q: In a few months we will have left behind the current European framework program Horizon 2020 to welcome Horizon Europe with open arms. This program, whose proposal by the European Commission is 100,000 million euros, is a moment of instability for all of us who work on European projects. I like to see these moments of change as an opportunity to improve and do new things. How do you see this transition between programs given the current social and political circumstances that we are experiencing?
A: Well, the truth is that the first steps of a new program are always said to be a bit scary, but I am more of your opinion, they are always opportunities. Furthermore, in the Framework Program, if you are able to understand well the new program or the new instruments, you even have an initial advantage over your competitors. In any case, I think that this new program is not going to involve so much change with respect to the previous one. For example, the change from FP7 to H2020 in 2013/2014 was a drastic change, both at the structure level and at the level of participation instruments, cost models, financing. A true revolution, which I think was also in line with social demands, in a post-crisis environment and “attempted” recovery. Now, and more accentuated with Brexit and the Pandemic, the environment demands more stability, and Horizon Europe goes a bit along that line. All the communications from Brussels also follow that line, considering this new program an Evolution rather than a Revolution.
Q: You have been dedicating yourself to the world of R + D + i for 20 years, specifically everything related to European R + D + i. The “paradigm shift” that the EU proclaimed so much 7 years ago, with the completion of FP7 and that made us R & D & I managers learn at a forced marches a new program structure and its rules of participation. How marked or significant is this change from Horizon 2020 to Horizon Europe going to be?
A: No, not at all. The “fat” change we have already made. It is clear that there will be new developments, the most significant related to the Missions as a formula to address certain challenges, but overall I think it will be quite continuous. We must wait for the official documents to be published, especially to see if some of the pilots that were in H2020 of financing by “unit costs” or by results become generalized, but the structure in 3 pillars, the types of instruments or even the percentages financing, for the most part, will be continuous.
Even the computer tool, the “Funding and Tenders Portal” will remain in force. It should be remembered that the change from FP7 to H2020 led to the unification of the different platforms (NEF, IST, …) in the one of those, “Participant Portal”, which continues to be updated, but maintaining the way it works.
Yes, there will be some changes related to a more RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation) approach. Open access to research data will be generalized (something already started in H2020), equality plans will be required to be a beneficiary of the projects, the logo will be prioritized HRS4R (related to hiring policies for research human resources), even more, attention will be paid to ethical aspects, and so on.
Speaking of justifications, yes there will be some other change, but I think minor. For example, instead of cost/hour and productive hours, we will now talk about cost/day and productive days (215 each year), the concept of “closed financial year” is eliminated and we return to the real cost, the “timesheets” lose weight in favour of certificates … things that we had already sensed in the last years of H2020.
Q: Now we are going to move on to something more practical. In your 4 years as a National Contact Point for legal and financial matters, you have had to deal with the doubts and queries of all the Spanish participants. Indirect costs, linked third parties, amortizations, timesheets, lump sums and an innumerable list of “simplifications” that Europe was putting into practice during Horizon 2020. In your opinion, what things have worked well and what others would be good to change the face to Horizon Europe?
In general, most of the modifications I think have been positive, at least from an error minimization point of view, which in the end gives you more security. For example, a single method for indirect costs based on a percentage can be financially detrimental because according to analytical accounting there would certainly be a higher percentage of cost, but it simplifies the calculation and minimizes errors. The same happens with the calculation of personnel based on a fixed number of working hours (now in Horizon Europe it will be days), it can harm and get a cost/hour somewhat lower than the real one, but it again minimizes errors. Perhaps what the beneficiaries liked the least was the obligation to use the costs of the last closed financial year instead of the actual ones,
On the other hand, and this is a personal opinion, although by philosophy I believe that financing by results/milestones is positive, I believe that it could bring problems of legal certainty, especially to the managers of public entities. It would be necessary to see the results of the pilots that were carried out in H2020 to decide with more data and propose it in an optimal and safe way.
There is another thing that I have been detecting in recent years, and I do not know if it is due to indications of the agencies themselves (REA, ERCEA, EASME, …) or to the high mobility index of the Project Officer (PO) (some come from agencies that managed ERDF funds), but the truth is that some POs are requesting more information than is actually required by the Grant Agreement, based on detailed budgets or detailed justifications. This is something that worries me a lot, because if something good has H2020, at the management level, it is flexibility in those areas, and it would not be good if it was eliminated.
Q: Speaking of Horizon Europe, due to the coronavirus crisis, this program starts with some delay. In fact, to this day we still do not have clear details of the “ins and outs” of the participation rules, the draft work programs are far from being final… which may be the best time to “rearm”. What advice would you give to all the participants in this impasse in which we find ourselves?
A: Well, I think that the last H2020 call, related to the Green Deal, has given us a bit of a clue. Ok, it is H2020 and not HE, but the way to define the “topics”, the multidisciplinarity, and the great weight of the fight against climate change (I remember that 35% of the HE budget goes to contribute to that fight). gives an indication of how to prepare.
Apart from this, I would be very aware of the evolution of the Missions, of the people who are part of the Missions Committees and of the consultations that are being made.
Going a little further, I would start to think about how my research or results can contribute, for example, to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I would also begin to get used to defining indicators for my projects, because they are going to be very relevant, and to look for complementary partners who approach my same issues from another perspective because the projects will have to be “complete”.
Q: In closing, I would like to ask you about the vision of innovation that has been introduced into Horizon Europe from Brussels. We now have a pillar dedicated to innovation, Innovative Europe, within which the European Innovation Council (EIC) is consolidated, with funding directed mostly to SMEs and midcaps. According to the latest CDTI data regarding the Spanish participation in Horizon 2020, the participation of companies (36.5%) is already above that of universities (20.5%). From your experience at the University of Vigo, do you think that these changes could threaten the success of the program for institutions that work in the lower links of the value chain, such as universities?
No, I think it has to be an incentive for universities to ally even more with the business fabric. Even today there are universities / colleges that do not know what we are talking about when we talk about a TRL3 or a TRL6, or who do not think about who the user and client of their research will be. It is clear that there must always be a part dedicated to basic or less applied research, but the transfer function of universities has to be consolidated, and the instruments for financing innovation are a good touchstone.
It is true that Spain has been a leader in many of the actions aimed at SMEs, but it is also true that universities and research centres have also been in many projects of the “Fast Track to Innovation” type and behind many SME instruments (both phase I as phase II). For all these reasons, I think that more than a problem, it is a new opportunity for universities capable of evolving, of reacting.
After reading Anxo I still believe that this world of European R & D & I is wonderful. First, because every 6 or 7 years it gives us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and learn new things. Second, because, even if we suffer from situations as extreme as the one that befell us in 2020, there is always room for hope. And third and not least, because it puts incredible people in your path that you could not meet in any other way.
And here I link with the anecdote of how I met Anxo. Which is how most of you would know it: in a CDTI infoday. Yes, gentlemen, there I just entered the UAM European and International Projects Office in 2015 to try to find out what this Horizon 2020 was about. Anxo, how could it be otherwise, had already been burning with emails with my existential doubts. But he didn’t put a face on it. And on that infoday I literally got very confused: on the agenda it was said that he was at the table of speakers, but I only saw the CDTI people and a heavy singer with a ponytail and rings everywhere. Until I noticed the little sign with the name of that boy who had sneaked into that table of people with a jacket: Anxo Moreira. Freak out. And with what I like heavy! And on top of it, he makes super entertaining presentations with Star Wars stuff! If I find out, I get into these European projects first …😊My boss at the time introduced me to him at the coffee break… and until now. Since then he has always been available for any questions about H2020 management, he has been “fooled” to come as a speaker to numerous events that we organized in Madrid … and as I said, this world puts people who are worth a lot in your way. Anxo is one of those people that I know I will always be able to count on, who make a place for themselves beyond personnel costs and flat rates. In December 2016, university managers cried a lot because Anxo stopped being an NCP. To be honest, I was quite happy because now I consider him my head NCP. What we say, you have to know how to see opportunities in the most complicated moments.