Long-term research funding ‘essential’, say European universities

EUA says Brussels must stop dipping into Horizon Europe budget to fund other short-term priorities

December 8, 2023
The West Bar development in Sheffield city centre
Source: iStock

The European University Association has called for “sufficient and sustainable” research and innovation funding at both the European and national levels in order to “support deeper, long-term science”.

In a new publication on the research and innovation agenda, the EUA highlights “championing a well-designed and sustainable R&I system” as one of three priorities, alongside maximising the societal impact of university research and nurturing diverse, collaborative cultures.

Research budgets are too often influenced by short-term political cycles, the umbrella body says, noting that, in times of crisis, political leaders are inclined towards prioritising applied research and innovation at the expense of basic research.

“Research funding is often targeted when money is needed somewhere else,” EUA policy analyst Kamila Kozirog told Times Higher Education. Citing global crises including the Covid pandemic, geopolitical tensions, inflation and public debt, she continued: “We see that the governments shift focus towards meeting the immediate consequences of these crises, including, for example, immediate financial commitments, and this is unfortunately often at the expense of long-term investment, including in research and innovation.

“What we tried to achieve with this agenda was to show that such shifts in budget, shifting away from research funding, would have wide-ranging consequences. This will provoke a long-term negative impact on the European scientific, societal and economic landscape.”

In recent years, Ms Kozirog noted, new initiatives including the European Chips Act, the European Union’s Space Strategy for Security and Defence, and the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (Step) have tapped into the budget for the European Union’s current framework programme, Horizon Europe.

“We’re adding too many priorities and we are basically diluting the budgets,” she said.

Stephane Berghmans, the EUA’s director of research and innovation, told THE: “If you want to add new political priorities, well, find new money, and don’t come and take it out of the framework programme.”

Next year’s European elections could strongly influence the development of the successor to Horizon Europe, Dr Berghmans said, particularly if the results were to reflect the growing populism across the continent.

Europe’s populist shift was “undermining trust in science”, he said, adding: “Politicians who make those decisions about budgets are elected by people. If those people don’t think that science is important, that’s not going to be a big priority on the political agendas of those who make the decisions. It’s as simple as that. It’s an uphill battle.”

Public opinion could also result in an overemphasis on applied over basic research, Ms Kozirog said. “Society usually tends to support research and innovation that could have some visible outcomes within a short timeframe. The problem we see today is that society is reluctant to invest public money in basic research, simply because you need many years to see the results of this work.”  

The EUA is one of a string of university groups to stress the importance of funding basic research, with several issuing position papers earlier this year after the European Commission launched a public consultation on EU research and innovation framework programmes. The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities cautioned against a focus on technology readiness levels (TRLs), stating that “a discovery in a collaborative project focusing on basic research…can be more ground-breaking than the results of applied research projects”.

The Young European Research Universities Network (YERUN) makes similar points. “Investing in today’s basic research is the best guarantee to have the means to develop intellectual and technical tools to tackle current as well as future challenges,” the network has argued. “The practice of earmarking funding for policy-driven research should remain circumscribed and should not be developed at the expense of funding for blue-sky and basic research.”

“Even when it comes to applied research, what we are arguing is that we need to go beyond technology readiness level,” Dr Berghmans said. “The total impact of research is too often not considered enough. If we think back to the pandemic, for example, it’s not just the fact that vaccines were developed – [we also learned] about behaviours of people, understanding why people react a certain way, why they don’t want to be vaccinated.

“All that is too often not taken into account.”


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles