‘Moonshot’ science trumps basic research in EU budget proposals

University representatives disappointed by lower than expected budget increase for European Research Council

June 7, 2018
Space shuttle

Curiosity-driven science has lost out to huge “moonshot” research projects in plans for the next European Union research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe.

University representatives were left disappointed by a smaller than expected proposed budget increase for the European Research Council, arguably the continent’s most prestigious funder of basic research, as Brussels spelled out in more concrete terms how it would divide up a proposed €100 billion (£88 billion) budget planned for 2021-27.

Under plans announced by the European Commission, the ERC would receive €16.6 billion over the period, compared with €13.1 billion during the current framework programme, Horizon 2020.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said that many university representatives had been “quietly confident” that the budget would double.

As it stands, the council’s budget will make up only a slightly higher proportion of the framework programme budget than it does now, and could be whittled down further in negotiations.

The budget for Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, focused on helping early career researchers, would in effect “flatline”, he said, growing from €6.2 billion to €6.8 billion.

The “big winners” would be the new European Innovation Council, Professor Palmowski said, which would receive €10 billion to stimulate the translation of new ideas into the economy, and yet to be defined “missions” – grand scientific projects with “concrete goals”.

The worry is that curiosity-driven research, not informed by any particular target, could struggle to fit in with this new, mission-driven approach, Professor Palmowski warned.

Explaining the commission’s plans, Carlos Moedas, the commissioner for research, science and innovation, said that the EU needed to fund “missions that people understand”, rather like John F. Kennedy’s “moonshot”.

As science becomes more complex, he argued, its link with European taxpayers weakens, hence the need to back easily comprehensible missions, which he described as being, at least in part, a “communications tool”. A €1 billion project called “curing Alzheimer’s” would be better understood by citizens than “mapping the brain”, he said.

The idea is that these overarching missions would draw on all parts of EU funding, from fundamental research to innovation, he explained. Expert boards – possibly including organisations representing potential beneficiaries such as cancer patients – should convene at the beginning of 2019 to decide on their targets, he added.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, said that the organisation was supportive of a mission-driven approach, but it was unclear so far exactly how university researchers would participate.

Money should not simply be directed into an area because it was easier to explain to the public, he added. Over-promising of results could also be a risk, he said. “You can’t just say we put a couple of million into a funding programme and we will arrive there,” he continued.

Documents released by the commission also gave some clues on the terms the UK might be able to join Horizon Europe as an associated country. Any association agreement cannot “confer to the third country a decisional power on the programme”, they say. There should also be an “automatic correction” in the event of a “significant imbalance” between how much an associated country pays in and gets out.

Thomas Jørgensen, a senior policy coordinator at the EUA, said that the rules “present a clear but flexible framework, including an open door for the UK to begin negotiations on post-Brexit association, hopefully very soon”.

But UK prime minister Theresa May has previously said that any UK contribution to the research framework should be exchanged for influence over its design, and the country currently wins significantly more money than it puts in.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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