Science lobby set for verdict on Horizon 2020

The scientists’ group EuroScience, the European Research Council and the League of European Research Universities have made fresh pleas urging decision makers to secure a budget of at least €80 billion for Horizon 2020. In letters to the EU Council, the groups say the money will be vital to ensure the success of the programme, promote economic growth and prevent the departure of talented researchers from Europe.

Their call comes as heads of state prepare to meet in Brussels today to try to reach a compromise on the overall EU budget for 2014-20. In November, inconclusive talks discussed a scenario indicating a Horizon 2020 settlement of around €70bn, despite a pre-emptive campaign by science groups supported by Nobel laureates and a petition of 153,000 signatures.

Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of EuroScience, admits the research lobby may not do any better this time. “I’m not really optimistic, I must confess, because from what I’m hearing, on the key subdivisions of the budget, the agreement is very close,” he says. A senior Commission official also confirmed leaders were close to a compromise on spending allocations, but that other technical areas, such as member-state rebates, remained a problem.

In its letter, EuroScience tells leaders they should give Horizon 2020 €85bn using funds from the two largest budget areas—agriculture and cohesion. Otherwise, the rhetoric by leaders on the importance of research spending “once more threatens to be a matter of lip service,” the letter says.

EuroScience has attempted to gain traction via the Irish presidency of the Council, by briefing on the implications of a €70bn scenario, and it has lobbied the Dutch prime minister through the Royal Netherlands Society of Arts and Sciences.

The ERC has teamed up with the European Round Table of Industrialists, a group of industry chief executives, to make its case. “I am what I call a realistic optimist, so I want to try whatever seems possible until the very end,” says ERC president Helga Nowotny.

However, Nowotny says a fundamental change in the EU system is needed to better support research and innovation. “We are in a structure that has a historical antecedence, with a common agricultural policy but no common R&D policy,” says Nowotny. “Most policymakers believe that research is key for Europe’s future, but if you don’t have the structure in place then we end up where we are now.”

Other Brussels sources have told Research Europe that national leaders will struggle to justify increased spending on research to their governments, in part because the competitive nature of the funding allocation means they cannot quantify how much they will get back.

A senior Commission official points out that “there is no unconditional support for Horizon 2020” among member states. “France is unconditionally for agricultural subsidies. The Group of 12 are unconditionally for structural funds. The UK is for Horizon 2020, but … there always has to be a ‘but’.”

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of Leru, says the outlook for Horizon 2020 could be even more bleak. At a meeting with Scottish university officials on 29 January, he said he fears extra commitments to large projects could subtract as much as €15bn from it—leaving just €55bn for the work streams.

According to Deketelaere, money for projects such Galileo, Copernicus and the Iter nuclear fusion reactor will now “probably” be taken from Horizon 2020—leaving the research programme in “a complete mess”. However, others believe that there will be a ring-fenced allocation of €12.8bn for the three projects, as included in the latest document being discussed by the Council.

If leaders do not agree this week, the Commission says it will prepare a budget for 2014 based on this year’s spending plus two per cent inflation.

Laura Greenhalgh

Reproduced with kind permission from Research Europe, originally published on 07-02-2013

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