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Europe’s Framework Programmes – a key element of research policy in Europe

The First Framework Programme for research funding started in 1984.
The First Framework Programme for research funding started in 1984.

In the first of a series of articles commemorating the 30th anniversary of Europe’s Framework Programmes for research, Horizon looks at how EU research funding evolved from a handful of separate programmes to become a major component of the research and innovation landscape in Europe. 

‘The European Framework Programme is now a key reference for countries outside the European Union,’ said Professor Jean-Pierre Contzen, a former director-general of the EU’s in-house research service, the Joint Research Centre, who was involved in setting up the First Framework Programme.

Research has a long history in Europe, but the emergence of what is now the European Union has created a novel concept of European research. Over recent decades, it has gradually acquired the sense of deliberate collaboration between European countries linking first their research activities, then their policies in this field.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s, early EU research funding was limited to a few industrial sectors: coal, steel and atomic energy. In the decades that followed, separate research programmes were launched in energy, environment and molecular biology.

When Étienne Davignon became the European Commissioner for Industrial Affairs and Energy in 1981, he decided to rationalise these initiatives by putting them together in a single coherent framework. Two years later, the First Framework Programme was drafted by Prof. Contzen along with a colleague Louis Villecourt.

From its debut in 1984, the Framework Programme has expanded in scope and scale – matching the evolution of the EU itself. Its legal basis was strengthened and its objectives were refined and extended. In 1986, the Single European Act included for the first time a specific chapter on research, which put the emphasis on applied research aiming at supporting the competitiveness of European industry.

‘There has been a positive evolution in the sense that there is perhaps more cooperation between what is done at the European level and what is done at the national level.’

Professor Jean-Pierre Contzen, former director-general of the Joint Research Centre

In the 1980s there was only a small programme to support fundamental research. By 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) had been launched. The ERC, which represents 17 % of the EUR 77 billion budget of the current Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, supports fundamental research carried out by individual teams.

  • The treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) is signed. It provides for the funding of research for the coal and steel industries.
  • The treaty establishing the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) is signed. It provides for research into nuclear energy between countries. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is launched. It provides independent scientific and technical advice to the European Commission.
  • Étienne Davignon becomes European Commissioner for Industrial Affairs and Energy and decides to rationalise research funding under a single framework.
  • Duration: 1984-1987 Budget: EUR 3.3 billion  
  • The Single European Act is signed. It includes, for the first time in an EU Treaty, a chapter on research.
  • Duration: 1987-1991 Budget: EUR 5.4 billion
  • Duration: 1990-1994 Budget: EUR 6.6 billion
  • Duration: 1994-1998 Budget: EUR 13.2 billion
  • Duration: 1998-2002 Budget: EUR 14.9 billion
  • The Lisbon European Council launches the European Research Area (ERA).
  • Duration: 2002-2006 Budget: EUR 19.3 billion
  • Duration: 2007-2013 Budget: EUR 55.9 billion
  • The treaty on the European Union (Treaty of Lisbon) is signed.
  • Duration: 2014-2020 Budget: EUR 77 billion

As the EU enlarged, candidate countries had the chance to participate in research collaborations through the Framework Programmes, sometimes years before they became members. A wider international dimension was progressively built into EU research policy. Transnational cooperation was progressively extended to more and more countries beyond the EU, across the entire world. That process culminated in the opening of all EU research programmes to the participation of teams from non-EU countries.

In recent years, the Framework Programmes have also featured new forms of support in the field of result-oriented research. They have pioneered the creation of large joint undertakings that bring public and private actors together in subject-specific partnerships – ranging from aeronautics to nanoelectronics and pharmaceutical research. Schemes for collaboration between public national research organisations and programmes have also been set up.


As they have evolved, the Framework Programmes have enabled better coordination of research between the European Commission and national governments. Member States have gradually increased the level of research coordination and the growing scale and scope of the Framework Programmes has been instrumental in this.

A key step in this respect was, in early 2000, the launch of the European Research Area (ERA) initiative by Commissioner Philippe Busquin, on the basis of ideas from two of his predecessors, Ralf Dahrendorf in the 1970s and Antonio Ruberti in the 1990s. The ERA was at the heart of the Lisbon Agenda and was included in the 2007 Treaty on the European Union (Treaty of Lisbon).

‘Most of the Member States still continue to decide by themselves their priorities, but there has been a positive evolution in the sense that there is perhaps more cooperation between what is done at the European level and what is done at the national level,’ said Prof. Contzen. ‘Also, I think that Member States have accepted that, in some areas, the lead should be at the level of the EU.’

The impact of the Framework Programmes is clearly visible in 30 years of cross-border collaborations between Europe’s scientists, in the rise in research activity across Europe – particularly in the newer Member States – and in the emergence of an increased reflex for cooperation among researchers and heads of research organisations in Europe.

National research strategies have increasingly borne Europe in mind, and the growing synergy between research policy and innovation policy has led to greater convergence of objectives, as demonstrated by the current Horizon 2020 Programme with its emphasis on delivery of solutions for the major societal challenges that Europe faces.

After 30 years of development, the EU’s Framework Programmes have become a key element of research policy in Europe.