Europe to splash €35 billion on research in pandemic stimulus

Wave of money is ‘truly unprecedented’, says Italian rectors’ head, but some worry the money is too focused on technology transfer and that national plans overlap

June 29, 2021
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Research and innovation across the European Union is set to receive a €35 billion (£30.1 billion) boost from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund, in some countries doubling public research budgets almost overnight.

In the spring, EU member states busied themselves sending Brussels detailed plans on how they would spend their slice of the €672.5 billion Recovery and Resilience Facility, an unprecedented common stimulus designed to help economies emerge greener and more digitally savvy from the crisis.

At an online event, Mariya Gabriel, commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth, revealed that collectively, these plans contained €35 billion for research and innovation. “It will provide a substantial boost,” she enthused.

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This spending has to be implemented over the next seven years, although Brussels wants to front-load expenditure to turbocharge the recovery.

In some eastern states, governments hope to receive more from the fund than their entire annual public research budgets, she said, with Croatia and Slovakia being star spenders.

There is also money set aside to make research careers more attractive; this is a key part of the Slovak plan, for example.

“Our best researchers, our best minds, are going to other countries because of better salaries and conditions,” Lívia Vašáková, one of those leading recovery planning in the Slovak government, told delegates to the annual European Research and Innovation Days conference.

Even so, some are disappointed with the slice of the fund specifically dedicated to research and innovation. “I was aiming at more,” said Maria da Graça Carvalho, an MEP closely involved in research policy. She said that MEPs, who are also set to run the rule over national plans, will push for more research and innovation spending. “It’s the best way to recover,” she said.

There’s also a strong skew towards applied research and technology, she said, but it was crucial not to neglect curiosity-driven science. “The way to be resilient is to…invest in fundamental research, to be prepared for any challenge,” she said.

And there’s also concern about duplication of effort, with member states bidding for money to research the same thing. The EU needed to make sure “that we don’t have 27 different hydrogen strategies”, Ms da Graça Carvalho said.

These concerns – an overemphasis on technology transfer, and the potentially messy growth of a new thicket of initiatives, institutions and networks – are present in Italy, a long-standing research laggard set to be the biggest beneficiary of the recovery plan, requesting close to €200 billion in grants and loans.

Nearly €20 billion (taking into account a few other EU pots of money) of this will go to education and research. The bulk – nearly €13 billion – will be spent on “research to enterprise”, ushering in a smorgasbord of initiatives to turn discovery into growth.

To name a few, there will be up to 15 basic research partnerships between universities, research institutes and industry, backed to the tune of €100 million each. Sixty new technology transfer offices will be set up across Italy. Up to 5,000 PhDs will be funded “based on industry need”. More than 5,000 research projects of “national interest” will be funded. There will also be more than €1 billion each for student scholarships and campus upgrades.

Universities expect to receive about €15 billion, said Ferruccio Resta, president of the Conference of Italian University Rectors. Given that before the pandemic, the state spent about €7 billion annually on universities, “we are in front of something truly unprecedented”, he said.

The main focus of the funding is on “people and talent development”, he said, namely “PhDs, postdocs, researchers”, and he stressed that it would “considerably” back curiosity-driven research, too.

Professor Resta is also supportive of the push to create new technology transfer offices – Italy produces plenty of publications, but “nevertheless, we are stuck when it comes to translating results into economic impact”.

Despite the sums of money involved, critics of Italy’s underinvestment in research remain unconvinced that it would solve the system’s woes.

Too much of the package is spent on technology transfer, not underlying research, according to Roars, a group of academics campaigning for reform of the country’s higher education system, meaning that Italy will struggle to reach French, let alone German, levels of public research spending under the plan.

“This is not surprising as the ideological background has remained unchanged: universities and research are not seen as a long-term investment spanning all cultural, scientific and civil dimensions but as a short-term one, subject to the immediate needs of the business world,” their statement said.

There are also worries that the glut of money will be misspent duplicating existing technology transfer bodies. Roars said it was concerned about the “potential waste due to the sudden and intense funding, through channels yet to be established”.

Italian senator and prominent stem cell researcher Elena Cattaneo has already raised these concerns in the Italian Senate, warning of the “risk of spending European funds on an unnecessary multiplication of bodies”.


Print headline: EU to spend billions on research recovery

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