The prime minister may be turning pink with fury over demands to cough up an extra £1.7 billion to the European Union, but it seems that David Cameron is not the only one baulking at contributing a lot more to a European body.
The Medical Research Council has been criticised by more than 200 researchers, including several Nobel laureates, for resisting a request from the European Molecular Biology Organisation for a 5 per cent year-on-year rise in its budget.
The organisation is funded by contributions from member countries to provide fellowships and courses. Its core 2014 budget is €18.1 million (£14.1 million), of which the UK paid €2.8 million. Levels for 2015 to 2019 are due to be agreed at a meeting of member states on 24 November.
Earlier this week more than 200 UK EMBO members, young investigators and hosts of EMBO postdoctoral fellows wrote to the MRC to protest against its offer of only a 2 per cent year-on-year rise.
The signatories, including Sir Paul Nurse, who is EMBO secretary general as well as president of the Royal Society and a Nobel laureate, say that the stance of the MRC and its junior funding partner, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, will “not only disproportionately impact EMBO’s support for UK science but also undermine the United Kingdom’s position as a respected partner in the wider European scientific community”. Other Nobel laureates who have signed the letter include Sir Tim Hunt, Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Sir John Sulston and Sir John Gurdon.
EMBO’s proposed increase would take its core budget to €24.1 million by 2019: a 33 per cent rise over a period when the UK science budget is likely to remain frozen in cash terms. The MRC’s proposal would amount to a 15 per cent rise by 2019.
The UK will contribute about 13.7 per cent of EMBO’s core budget, but currently receives nearly 28 per cent of its postdoctoral fellowships, on which most of its budget is spent. For this reason, the letter says, if EMBO’s budget is raised by 5 per cent a year, the UK would effectively gain up to €238,000 a year.
A spokeswoman for the MRC said: “We, along with the 26 other member countries, are currently in negotiations with [EMBO] as to how we can best meet the proposed budget increase…In the course of these negotiations, we bear in mind that because our share of national contributions varies with GDP, the UK contribution is likely to increase significantly in the future.
“Public funds are limited, and we have to ensure that our continued support of EMBO is not at the expense of our national programmes.”