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View from Brussels: Hope springs eternal for slashed EU research budget

Image credit: European Commission

European Union leaders disappointed the continent’s research and development community back in July, when they agreed on a reduced budget for the next seven years. But a fightback is in progress, which might prompt a rethink before the agreement is finalised.

The EU’s €1.8 trillion budget for the 2021-2027 period was given the green light by prime ministers and presidents at a European summit before the summer, after hours of horse-trading and side deals.

Compromises were inevitable but it was still surprising that the bloc’s Horizon Europe research funding was the target of the cuts, given that much of the budget wrangling was geared towards responding to the coronavirus crisis.

According to the current figures, the Horizon programme is set to enjoy about the same amount of cash that it had for the last seven years - roughly €80bn - instead of the €95bn proposed by the European Commission earlier this year.

That figure paled in comparison to the €120bn asked for by the European Research Council (ERC) and the European Parliament. ERC head Jean-Pierre Bourguignon told MEPs on Monday (7 September) that his agency is “furious” with the current state of play.

“We have no choice but to start building the future we want for Europe today in this time of crisis,” he said, adding: “otherwise, the future we want will never arrive. We cannot afford that!”

“Europe must show confidence in its own future and invest in research and innovation trusting its best minds,” the ERC president concluded.

He is not the only one disappointed by the budget cut: EU climate boss Frans Timmermans said recently that he was “very sorry that the budget was limited like that”, citing the spending that is needed to boost clean energy and e-mobility efforts.

Under the current scenario, R&D spending will struggle to stay much above 2 per centof GDP, far below a 3 per cent target that is aimed to match the likes of China, Japan and the United States. All is not lost though, as the final budget deal still needs final approval by the Parliament.

At the beginning of this week, MEPs reportedly asked the EU’s member countries for an extra €110bn, which would be predominantly earmarked to top up the Horizon programme and student-exchange scheme Erasmus.

The political effort needed to arrive at the current deal in July - heads of government were locked in talks in Brussels for a few days - was huge, and it is clear that there is little wiggle-room to increase the actual size of the budget.

Diplomats are more interested in moving the existing money around from sector to sector than having to go back to their national capitals asking for a bigger cheque.

But MEPs do wield a veto and if the Council rejects their wish for extra cash then they will have to balance supporting a delay to a budget deal - which could jeopardise the EU’s virus recovery effort - with giving in and accepting R&D funding that is universally seen as not up to the task.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon pointed out in his plea to lawmakers that “above all, what the pandemic has proved is the importance of preparedness built over the long term. It has also shown the reactivity and flexibility of researchers was key to get us through it.”

The knock-on effects of a smaller war chest were already evident over the last seven years: 3,600 Horizon 2020 projects were turned down purely due to budgetary constraints. As the programme’s reach extends that number is set to swell.

The ERC chief also explained that his agency’s work has identified “more than 180 projects worth about €340 million that are highly relevant to deal with the [coronavirus] crisis.”

Not a day goes by in Brussels but that there is some update about the EU institutions aiming to secure vaccine doses for citizens or reshore pharmaceutical production back to Europe.

The way things stand, those holding the purse strings have chosen to ignore the very people that are likely to discover a viable virus jab by failing to think beyond the short term. It is now up to MEPs to remind them of that fact and save the day at the eleventh hour.

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