Nobelists fear cuts to European Research Council budget

Fourteen laureates join thousands of academics in pleading for funding for Europe’s flagship research scheme to be protected

September 4, 2020

Thousands of scientists across Europe have called on Brussels to protect the European Research Council’s budget amid fears that “one of the greatest success stories of the European Union” could be scaled back.

In an open letter signed by more than 16,000 academics from 94 countries, including 14 Nobel laureates and numerous university presidents, scholars called on the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to ensure that the flagship basic research fund’s budget was safeguarded in the next framework programme for research and innovation, which runs from 2021 to 2027.

“Protecting and improving the European Research Council budget will secure continued investments in research that pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and continues to strongly support Europe as a dynamic knowledge society,” states the letter, which was also addressed to the European Parliament’s president, David Maria Sassoli, and the European Council’s president, Charles Michel.

The petition, which calls for a “financially strong and independent ERC”, follows the announcement in July of a slimmed-down budget for the next seven-year research and innovation framework, which will be known as Horizon Europe, from which the ERC is funded.

Some €80.9 billion (£72.2 billion) was allocated to the fund in a decision agreed by EU leaders in July – significantly below the €94.4 billion proposed by the European Commission in May, meaning just 4.5 per cent of the 2021-27 EU budget will be spent on research after significant funds were diverted into coronavirus recovery schemes.

At €81 billion, Horizon Europe would be only slightly larger than the previous seven-year framework, the €77 billion Horizon 2020, once inflation is considered – although UK-based researchers would no longer be able to apply for grants, thereby increasing the available funding pot for other states.

However, “in light of the current European debate on the next multiannual financial framework”, explains the letter, “there is significant reason to fear a cut across all areas of Horizon Europe, and we anticipate that this would also impact the ERC”.

The petition has been signed by, among others, Ben Feringa, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016, Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, who took the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2014, and Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

“Many great ideas already exist which will not receive funding under current budget constraints,” it continues. “With increased funding, many more scientific breakthroughs are possible, with a high degree of certainty.”

The letter, which was organised by the University of Bergen, maintains that the ERC is “a major reason for Europe’s increasing strength in research”, noting that “the EU comprises 7 per cent of the world’s population but produces a third of the world’s high-quality scientific publications”.

“It is therefore of paramount importance that this success story can continue to develop and increase its strength in Horizon Europe,” it explains, saying that the “ERC invests in top researchers in Europe, giving them the freedom to follow their scientific curiosity”.

“Based on scientific excellence, the ERC supports research that is pushing the very frontiers of knowledge through competitive funding across all fields,” it says.

“We recognise the ERC as the most important European instrument for financing frontier research – the very foundation of disruptive innovation,” says the document, which adds: “Thanks to the successes of the ERC, Europe is well positioned to remain a world leading economy, succeed in the European Green Deal and make substantive contributions to the resolution of global societal challenges.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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The EU’s next framework programme, Horizon Europe, is due to start in just over a year. But while its broad shape is settled, political wrangling over budget and participation rights means researchers are still unclear over their future funding prospects. David Matthews reports from Brussels

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