Universities have warned that the European Union’s planned increase in its post-2020 research budget might not be enough to tackle vanishingly low grant application success rates at the European Research Council.
The European Commission set out on 2 May plans to spend about €100 billion (£88 billion) on Horizon Europe, the seven-year research and innovation framework programme that will succeed the current programme, Horizon 2020.
This represents an increase of about 30 per cent on Horizon 2020, but is far less than the doubling of the budget that many university and research organisations had been lobbying for.
Nevertheless, research is one of the few areas of the commission budget that is set to receive more money in the next decade, while funding for the Erasmus+ student exchange programme would double to €30 billion, allowing about 12 million students to travel abroad in the period 2021-27, up from 4 million during Horizon 2020.
According to Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, part of the logic is to build support for the European project by encouraging people to cross borders while young.
The EU’s traditional big-budget items – agricultural subsidies and funds to help poorer regions catch up – are set to be cut back. But they remain much bigger priorities than research overall; the EU would spend close to €300 billion on agricultural subsidies over the period. Carlos Moedas, the commissioner for research, science and innovation, described Horizon Europe in a blog post as an “evolution not a revolution”.
And Mr Estermann pointed out that a significant chunk of the Horizon Europe budget – €10 billion over the period – had been earmarked during negotiations for “research and innovation in food, agriculture, rural development and the bioeconomy”, probably as a way to soften the blow of cuts to agricultural subsidies.
The EUA said that the budget “takes the right direction, but does not take the plunge”.
The proposed increases are “not ambitious enough to meet the combined objectives of an improved average success rate, enhanced funding for innovation and resourcing large-scale ‘missions’, among others. Indeed, this would require a full-scale doubling of the budget allocated to Horizon 2020,” the group said.
Poor success rates for applicants to the European Research Council have been blamed for wasting billions of euros and many hours of researchers’ time, as the vast majority of applications are unsuccessful.
It is also still unclear exactly how much of the €100 billion would go to universities, Mr Estermann stressed, because the proportions to be allocated to research and “innovation” – more generally targeted at companies – had not yet been nailed down.
However, more funds could come from non-EU members, such as the UK post-Brexit, if they join as associate members of Horizon Europe. The League of European Research Universities has calculated that the UK, Norway and Israel would add another €20 billion to the budget, bringing it to a level for which it has lobbied.
The budget proposal – known officially as the multi-annual financial framework – will now be haggled over by MEPs and member state governments, and it will face pressure for cuts. The Dutch government has already rejected the budget, arguing that “a smaller EU as a result of Brexit should also mean a smaller budget. That entails making clearer choices and spending less.”
The upcoming negotiations are “not going to be easy”, warned Mr Estermann.