‘Furious’ European Research Council president fears funding cut

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon calls for Horizon Europe’s funding to be ‘rebalanced’ to avoid reducing budget for ‘Champions League of research’

September 8, 2020
European Parliament, Strasbourg

Europe’s most senior scientist has called for an overhaul of Horizon Europe’s funding formula to ensure basic research receives at least €2 billion (£1.8 billion) a year.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council (ERC), told a committee hearing in Brussels on 7 September that the “absolute minimum” required by the blue skies research agency would be €14.7 billion, based on 2018 prices, or €16.6 billion in current prices, between 2021 and 2027.

That settlement “barely guarantees €2 billion a year to the ERC”, which would be “far from the ambition the ERC founders had for it to represent 5 per cent of national funding”.

To achieve that ambition, the ERC would need to receive about €17.7 billion in 2018 prices (€19.9 billion in current prices), which Professor Bourguignon called “a legitimately ambitious goal”.

However, as things stand, Professor Bourguignon said he expected to see a “big reduction for Horizon Europe”, the seven-year framework that replaces Horizon 2020 and from which the ERC is funded – a move that may see a smaller ERC budget once figures are adjusted for inflation.

That follows an agreement among EU leaders in July that cut Horizon Europe’s budget to €80.9 billion – well below the €94.4 billion proposed by the European Commission in May, and significantly under the €120 billion suggested by the European Parliament.

Given the scaled-back budget, Professor Bourguignon said he anticipated “stagnation” in the research funding budget when the new framework took effect in January, even if Horizon Europe’s budget was fractionally bigger than Horizon 2020’s in numerical terms.

He said the ERC could be forced to set a lower yearly budget for 2021 compared to 2020, the final year of Horizon 2020, which would repeat the situation of 2014 and 2015 when, due to lack of funds, “success rates dropped so significantly that the ERC scientific council had to take the drastic (and unpopular) measure to introduce reapplication restrictions that stayed”.

“We are furious because we know this approach is wrong,” he added.

Professor Bourguignon said the situation was exacerbated by the fact that none of the €5 billion recovery fund earmarked for Horizon Europe would go towards the area where bottom-up research is concentrated, leading to a possible drop in research funding.

He called on Horizon Europe to be “rebalanced” if this “worst-case scenario” prevails, adding that the “present erosion…has to be corrected to ensure researchers have enough room to develop their ideas and initiatives”.

“To underfund the ERC is a nonsense,” said Professor Bourguignon, who explained that the ERC had met the “very high” ambitions for the scheme to become the “Champions League of research in Europe” when it was launched in 2007. “The ERC has delivered on this,” he said.

Last week 14 Nobel Prize winners called on the European Commission to protect the budget of the ERC in an open letter that was signed by about 16,000 academics from across the world.

“The ERC is the key tool to offer prospects to the next generation of scientists, something badly needed to give them hope that they can advance in Europe better than elsewhere in the world,” explained Professor Bourguignon at the EU hearing, adding that the scheme was now “recognised as a global brand, which several countries outside Europe want to copy because of the extraordinary stimulation and opportunities it gives to the most ambitious and talented members of the research community.”

“Europe must show confidence in its own future and invest in research and innovation trusting its best minds,” he concluded.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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