The EU’s coronavirus recovery plan must harness frontier science

Extra funds for science are welcome, but tipping the balance towards challenge-led research must not become the new normal, warns Jan Palmowski

June 18, 2020
A European flag with the coronavirus replacing the stars
Source: iStock/aprott

On 27 May, the European Commission tried to overcome the deadlock over how to spend the European Union’s money post-Brexit. Not only did the commission launch a new proposal for the seven-year budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), it also accompanied that €1,100 billion (£990 billion) proposal with an unprecedented recovery package called Next Generation EU.

Funded with €750 billion borrowed from the money markets, the latter aims to boost Europe’s recovery post-Covid through urgent investments, particularly in green and digital transitions.

Combined, the two instruments boost the proposed budget of the EU’s research framework, Horizon Europe, from €83.5 billion to €94.4 billion. This is far from the €120 billion demanded by the European Parliament and the university sector. Still, it represents an increase of 13 per cent against the commission’s original 2018 Horizon Europe proposal. In the current climate, in which so many sectors are facing irreparable economic damage, achieving this increase is an important achievement for Mariya Gabriel, the new commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.

But the impact of the gains is ambiguous. The new proposal for Horizon Europe is made up of €80.9 billion (down from the €83.5 billion originally proposed) from the MFF, and €13.5 billion from Next Generation EU. This distinction matters. The 3 per cent reduction in core funding from the MFF most likely means that all instruments will be cut accordingly. This would include instruments in the excellent science pillar (Pillar 1), the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (which relate to mobility). Next Generation EU, by contrast, concentrates its spending on challenge-led research in the existing (Pillar 2) clusters for health; climate, energy and mobility; and digital, industry and space. And it will boost the budget for the European Innovation Council, which focuses on translation and the scale-up of market-creating ideas.

In short, the new proposal for Horizon Europe changes its nature. It boosts applied, close-to-market research and innovation. It makes the integration of the social sciences and humanities more rather than less difficult. And it reduces the size of the excellent science pillar in both relative and absolute terms.

More worryingly, these effects could be reinforced in upcoming negotiations. If, for instance, the Next Generation EU package is accepted as it is but the European Council (that is, national governments) reduces funding for research and innovation in the MFF, then the balance between research and innovation would be skewed even further to favour innovation and high-technology-readiness research.

If the MFF is passed in full, Horizon Europe’s budget will be a welcome 24 per cent higher than that of Horizon 2020 if the UK’s contribution to the latter is discounted. The money available for the ERC would also increase, from about €11 billion in constant 2018 prices for the EU-27 to €12.4 billion: a 13 per cent increase. But that is still a far cry from the doubling of the ERC’s budget that the sector had demanded. This will do little to reduce the number of outstanding proposals that cannot be funded.

There is not much time for the MFF and Next Generation EU to be approved. The next MFF must start in 2021. Europe and its scientific community need the budget negotiations to succeed. It is also essential that the council does not cut Horizon Europe’s budget. In this endeavour, we have an important ally in the European Parliament, which must approve the final MFF. We need to insist on the outstanding added value that research and innovation represent at the European level being reflected in the core budget.

In addition, we need a deeper understanding of how we strengthen Europe’s resilience in response to the crisis. In the Franco-German proposal for a European Recovery Plan that preceded the commission’s Next Generation EU package, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel stressed that Europe should not be reliant on other continents for supplying key technologies in digital industries, healthcare and environmental protection. They are right that today’s leading technologies should be produced in Europe – but we must go further.

Europe must also lead in the development of tomorrow’s cutting-edge knowledge. Any focus on short-term recovery must be coupled with investment in the continent’s long-term scientific resilience. If we just concentrate on developing the vaccine against Covid-19 without envisioning what other future crises we must pre-empt, we will have failed. The funding calls enabled by the Next Generation EU funds in Horizon Europe must include a strong commitment to frontier-led collaborative research.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the very specific political and economic context in which this Horizon Europe package has been redrafted. It may be that a focus on the EU’s political priorities for digital and environmental transformation were the only ways in which funds for Horizon Europe could be leveraged from the Next Generation package. But we cannot accept, either now or in the future, that the new, smaller proportion of the excellent science pillar is the new normal.

It is no accident that the ERC is by far the most important reason why Third Countries (including the UK) wish to associate with Horizon Europe. Europe adds a critical dimension to excellent, bottom-up research. The EU’s framework programmes for research and innovation must continue to be open to the best ideas of scientists throughout the entire research pipeline.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-intensive Universities and professor of modern history at the University of Warwick.

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