Horizon Europe cuts ‘would undermine innovation agenda’

Trimming the cost of flagship research scheme – in particular, the European Research Council – would harm EU priorities, sector leaders warn

November 25, 2019
A man cuts a piece of an EU cake
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Potential cuts to the European Union’s multibillion-euro research budget would be “disastrous” for universities and might undermine the continent’s ambitious innovation agenda, experts have warned.

Speculation over the EU’s new research framework, Horizon Europe, has been growing in recent weeks in Brussels as some countries press to limit overall EU spending while others are adamant that structural funds and agricultural subsidies should not be reduced.

As every member state has a veto, research faces being trimmed by default, with the EU’s proposed €94.1 billion (£81 billion), seven-year budget possibly being cut by about €12 billion.

At €82 billion, Horizon Europe would be only slightly larger than the previous seven-year framework, €77 billion Horizon 2020, once inflation is considered – albeit UK-based researchers would no longer be able to apply for grants, thereby increasing the available funding pot for other states.

However, with the EU launching its European Innovation Council, which will support tech start-ups with grants of up to €15 million, there are now fears that the proposed €16.6 billion budget for the European Research Council – part of Horizon Europe – could be sliced by €3 billion or more, pushing the funding available for basic research below Horizon 2020 levels.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told Times Higher Education that in the face of cuts, the new research commissioner, Bulgaria’s Mariya Gabriel, might seek to divert resources for the ERC to the new innovation scheme or to “grand challenge” funding – the third pillar of Horizon Europe.

“The incoming commissioner may have different priorities [from basic research], but a significant reduction would be disastrous for universities,” said Professor Palmowski, who added that such cuts would “run counter to everything the EU has said it would do around research and innovation”.

“The EU’s ambitions for its green deal [to provide jobs and carbon neutrality] and its new digital economy would be severely hurt by these cuts as research funded by the ERC is fundamental to achieving these goals,” Professor Palmowski added.

Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology, who was previously director general of the European Commission’s research directorate, said it would be a “slap in the face of the European science community” if the ERC’s budget were cut.

“Although the mandate letter of the commissioner does not mention the ERC explicitly, I just cannot imagine that, even in case of serious budget cuts, she will sacrifice this success story of Europe’s science policy,” said Mr Smits.

However, if the research budget were cut more by than 15 per cent, “fundamental choices will have to be made, and we will find out what is really important for the commissioner”, added Mr Smits, who described the ERC as the “jewel in the crown of European science”.

However, Mr Smits rejected the idea that the UK might not be so keen to join if Horizon Europe’s budget were reduced.

“Even if the ERC would not get the big budget increase, it will still remain the most powerful programme of frontier research in the world because of its robust peer review, rock-solid governance and high reputation,” he said, adding that the “reputation of the ERC is more than its budget“.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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