Research prioritised as European Union budget battle begins

As Brexit threatens funding shortfall, European Commission appears convinced research is better done continent-wide

January 12, 2018
Bull on the beach
Source: Alamy
Milking it: unless EU member states are willing to increase contributions to Brussels, any increases in research funding would need to come from cuts in other areas, such as farming

Universities have welcomed pledges from the European Commission not to cut research or Erasmus+ budgets after Brexit leaves a hole in the bloc’s budget.

Although the fight over the European Union’s spending in the 2020s is only just beginning, research and innovation has moved into prime position in an organisation that has historically spent most lavishly on farming subsidies.

Speaking in Brussels, Günther Oettinger, the budget and human resources commissioner, singled out the successor funding programme to Horizon 2020 and the student exchange scheme Erasmus+ as priorities that should not be cut back.

“We want more young people, students and academics travelling through Europe. We need more money for Erasmus and more for Horizon post-2020. These are two priorities for the future,” he said. The budget’s focus should be “future, innovation and youth”.

He later claimed on Twitter that his fellow commissioners had agreed with his opposition to cuts in these areas.

Negotiations over the EU’s budget for 2020-27 have been complicated by Brexit, which is thought likely to leave a €12 billion-€13 billion (£10.7 billion-£11.6 billion) hole in the organisation’s budget.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, said that the commission – the EU’s executive body – had come to view research as an activity with “European added value” – something that could be done better at a continental level than a national one. This was a change from the past, when it had been “very quick” to take money away from research, he said.

There are also reports that the French government will relent on its historically hard-line defence of agricultural subsidies in the coming negotiations, potentially leaving research to take centre stage.

But Mr Estermann cautioned that “we have to be careful…this is only the beginning of the discussion”, which will stretch into 2019. Farming subsidies still constitute the biggest part of the budget, with research and innovation only a “very small part” in comparison.

Unless member states are willing to up their contributions to Brussels, any increases in funding for research would likely have to come from cuts in other areas – farming, or “cohesion” funding to help the development of poorer members, he said.

Compromise could be the result: the EU might decide that some research funding should be ring-fenced for poorer member states or set aside for farming-related research topics, he suggested.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said that the support for researchers from the commission was “good news” but was not unexpected. The commission was “under pressure” to make good on previous claims that it considered research and innovation to be crucial to the future of the EU, and it was “reassuring” that it had stuck to this principle in “difficult financial times”, he said.

In the ensuing “battle” over the EU’s future budget, Germany was likely to be a strong supporter of more research spending, while under France's new president Emmanuel Macron, education, innovation and research had become more central to policy, Professor Deketelaere added.

But Central and Eastern European member states might be less supportive, not least because they win only a “ridiculously low” proportion of research and innovation funds from Horizon 2020, he said. Historically, member states were “always trying to cut the [research] budget” through the European Council, Professor Deketelaere said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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