Euro 'own goal'? Coalition tactic could bleed British R&D

Critics demand 'joined-up' thinking as plan to cut EU budget threatens research. Elizabeth Gibney reports

July 19, 2012

Efforts by the UK to curb rises to the overall European Union budget are threatening to cut the €80 billion (£63 billion) in EU research funding proposed for 2014 to 2020, Times Higher Education has learned.

The UK - whose academy benefits from more EU research funding than any other member state - is one of eight nations pushing to slash the main budget submitted by the European Commission.

Speaking at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin on 13 July, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European research, innovation and science commissioner, said that maintaining the budget for Horizon 2020 - the EU's next research funding programme - would be "very tough" as not every member state believed that the proposed €80 billion figure was justified.

"Even member states who themselves invest enormous amounts of money in research and innovation are part of a group [that wants] to reduce the overall [EU budget] by €100 billion," Ms Geoghegan-Quinn told a briefing. "The temptation [to cut research] is there...because it looks like a soft target."

Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, told THE that the Netherlands was the only one of the eight nations to call for research and innovation to be protected from the proposed cuts.

"But I wish that others would follow suit. The problem is it is not the research ministers who decide, it's the finance ministers and they are far away from research," she said.

Speaking in the House of Lords last month, crossbencher Baron Kakkar of Loxbeare, a member of a Lords EU committee, said it was understood that the government saw the proposed increase in EU research cash as "unrealistic" given current financial constraints.

A Treasury spokesman said the UK was arguing for a greater proportion of EU funding to go to areas that promote growth, such as research, but that the number one priority overall was budgetary restraint.

Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said that if the UK did not insist on protection for research, it would be "both hypocrisy and an own goal".

"Not only would it show how shallow the government's commitment to prioritising science and rebalancing the economy is, but it would also ignore the fact that the UK is a huge beneficiary of EU research funding," he said. "It's time for some joined-up policymaking."

Ms Geoghegan-Quinn added that two other potential targets for cuts - structural funds and the Common Agricultural Policy - have large lobbies to defend their budgets, but research has few champions.

Record of triumph

Research is one of the few areas in which the UK receives a disproportionately large amount of the EU budget and one upon which it may increasingly rely if domestic research cash is cut in the next government spending review.

British universities took almost €1.7 billion in funding from the EU's Seventh Framework Programme between 2007 and 2010, more than any other academy. They also received the highest proportion of ERC grants, a funding stream that would increase from €7.5 billion to €13.2 billion under the Commission's Horizon 2020 proposals.

Although the €80 billion is an increase on the previous seven-year budget of €54 billion, the weighting of spending towards later years means that a budget of at least €70 billion would be needed to maintain spending at current levels.

Members of the European Parliament's industry, research and energy committee have called for a greater increase, to €100 billion. Final approval of the rise will rest on both the Parliament and the views of finance ministers from the EU's member states. Negotiations are expected to continue into 2013.

Meanwhile, on 17 July the Commission confirmed that all research funded through Horizon 2020 must be made open access.

All articles must either be published in pay-to-publish open-access journals (the "gold" model) or submitted to free-to-access repositories post-publication (the "green" model).

The Commission has said it will cover publication fees for gold open-access publishing but only as part of original grants. It will announce how it plans to enforce the rules by the end of the year.

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