EU pandemic recovery fund ‘neglects long-term research’

Universities warn research allocation is insufficient to brace against potential future pandemic shocks

六月 4, 2020
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The European Union’s historic €750 billion (£669 billion) coronavirus recovery fund has disappointed university lobbyists, who say it adds precious little to the bloc’s science budget, meaning the long-term research needed to brace for future pandemics will go underfunded.

Once again, the EU has failed to match its rhetoric on science and technological transformation with hard numbers, some critics say, with one MEP calling the proposed budget “almost suicidal”.

Last week’s announcement of a planned extra €750 billion of grants and loans, largely for member states, broke new ground for the bloc, as it will be raised from financial markets by the European Commission itself – arguably a step towards member states pooling their debts.

Included in the plans are an “upgrade” to Horizon Europe, the EU’s flagship research and innovation programme, set to begin next year.

It will get an extra €13.5 billion, taking its overall, six-year budget to €94.4 billion, in a bid to “urgently build up [the EU’s] capacity to respond to crises and build resilience to future shocks”.

But this additional money is a tiny fraction of the overall recovery fund, pointed out Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association. It’s clear that the rhetoric overall does not match the figures,” he said.

Other university bodies welcomed the new funding – but said it was not nearly enough.

Our inability to overcome the pandemic quickly has shown that we have significantly underinvested in fundamental, frontier-led science,” responded the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “Continuing this trend would be a major mistake.”

The same old story continues,” the League of European Research Universities said in a statement. “Good, but not good enough.”

Christian Ehler, a German MEP closely involved in designing Horizon Europe, was more scathing.

European economic growth was predicated on technology and innovation, and the continent had committed to radically slash carbon emissions over the next decade, he pointed out. In this context, “not significantly increasing the European research budget is not just disappointing, it is almost suicidal”, he said.

The bulk of the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund, unveiled alongside revised plans for the EU’s regular 2021-27 budget and officially dubbed “Next Generation EU”, will go to member states themselves to help them recover from the pandemic, so it could in theory bolster national research budgets.

The focus will be on investment and reforms for long-term growth and the resilience of economies,” the commission’s plans say – but research and science are not explicitly mentioned.

Of course there’s a big crisis that we have to solve,” said Mr Estermann. “But it’s clear that we know undermining basic research will have tremendous long-term negative impacts.”

A further concern is that even this extra research funding could shrink in size as the overall recovery package is watered down through bargaining with the so-called “frugal four” of Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. “This is an amount that is certainly not going to stay like that,”Mr Estermann added.

In addition, the recovery package bolts on an extra €3.4 billion to the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme, taking its total budget in 2021-27 to €24.6 billion.

With hastily erected borders having throttled mobility across the continent, Erasmus+ needs a “substantial increase”, the Guild argued. “While being a step in the right direction”, the extra money is “not enough to support the next generation with the skills to build a better Europe,” it said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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The EU’s next framework programme, Horizon Europe, is due to start in just over a year. But while its broad shape is settled, political wrangling over budget and participation rights means researchers are still unclear over their future funding prospects. David Matthews reports from Brussels

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