Commission report calls on EU to double research spending

Major study on successor to Horizon 2020 also suggests including Canada and Australia in European programmes

July 3, 2017
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The European Union should double its research and innovation budget and allow countries such as Canada and Australia to join funding programmes as associate members, according to a crucial report expected to help shape the successor to the current €80 billion (£70 billion) Horizon 2020 scheme.

After Brexit, the UK should continue “full and continued engagement” with the EU research framework, adds the report, which was requested by the European Commission.

However, doubling the budget of Horizon 2020’s successor to €160 billion would be an unexpectedly big increase in funding. The European Parliament raised eyebrows when it called for €120 billion – a figure seen as highly ambitious.

Pascal Lamy, former director-general of the World Trade Organisation and chair of the group that produced the report, said that he did not know whether the EU would accept such a big budget rise, but added that he was “reasonably confident” of success.

Research and innovation was an area where the EU “adds value” by investing collectively, he said, and such a move would signal that “Europe is back” after a decade of overlapping crises, he added.

“When you look at the US, Japan, South Korea and China, they invest more than we do. We need to catch up seriously in innovation,” he said.

The report suggests that a “substantial proportion” of the EU’s agricultural and structural funds – which normally go to poorer member states – should be used for “universities, research centres, incubators, science parks and innovation diffusion activities”, suggesting a shift in how the EU spends its budget.

There will now be a “big fight” in Brussels over the EU’s budget and a final decision will be made next year, Mr Lamy said.

Another major recommendation is to allow “trading partners of a similar level of excellence” – such as Canada and Australia – to join the programme as associate members and to bid for grants if they contribute funding. Currently, associate membership is limited to countries outside the EU that are geographically close, such as Israel and Turkey, but this new report says that this option should “not [be] confined to a particular part of the world”.

“Science is getting more and more open”, and Canada, Australia and New Zealand were “European-like” countries, said Mr Lamy. Asked whether the US could follow suit, he said that the EU would wait until the “age of Trumpism” had passed, and then reassess.

The report, called LAB – FAB – APP: Investing in the European Future We Want and released on 3 July, also recommends “full and continued engagement” by the UK with the European research framework post-Brexit, as this would be an “obvious win-win for the UK and the EU”, given the strength of British science. This would be based on a “positive cooperation model” and “mutual investment”.

Mr Lamy said that whether the UK retains associate membership of Horizon 2020’s successor was a political decision, but added that it would be “stupidity” for the UK to leave the European Research Area, or for the EU to separate the UK from it, as the research area had been successful in integrating research efforts.

The report also has an emphasis on making sure that spending yields “impact”, an agenda seen by many as inhibiting curiosity-driven research. But Mr Lamy said that “we are not arguing that the European Research Council [which supports fundamental research] should be more impact evaluated” and added that the body was working “extremely well”.

It also recommends “more resources” for the ERC, but whether it gets a bigger or smaller proportion of funds would be a “political” decision, said Mr Lamy.

Speaking to Times Higher Education before a conference in Brussels to discuss the report on 3 July, Carlos Moedas, the European commissioner for research, science and innovation, said that “we all agree” that Europe should be investing more in science and innovation. “This is crucial for our future,” he said, but stressed that it would be up to heads of member governments to decide if they wanted to boost the research budget.

Mr Moedas refused to be drawn on whether the UK can stay as an associate member of Horizon 2020’s successor without freedom of movement. “That will depend on the whole process of negotiation,” he said. “I definitely hope [that] there will be a solution, but there are so many other pieces of the puzzle that have to be solved.”

Mr Moedas was enthusiastic about the idea that Canada and Australia should join as associate members. “One of our motors is that we should be open to the world,” he said. “We should seek for other associations with other parts of the world, and other countries such as Canada and New Zealand would make a lot of sense to me – so I welcome that suggestion.”

But he said that a similar status for the US would not be necessary “as we do a lot together already”.

Asked whether the ERC’s budget would grow as a proportion of EU research and innovation spending, he said: “I hope that the ERC budget increases, because it is the jewel in the crown.”

The first priority was to grow the entire budget, he explained, but added that “if I had to make that choice, I would definitely increase the budget of the ERC even if the whole budget doesn’t increase”.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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