Europe’s biggest universities have been warned to make contingency plans and build up financial reserves in case Brussels gridlock leads to new European Union research funding being cut off in 2021.
There are fears that not enough progress has been made preparing Horizon Europe, successor to the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and that European elections in May could derail the process further.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (Leru), told Times Higher Education that “time is running out”.
“The worry in my group is growing” and a gap in EU funding would be disastrous, he said. Leru, which includes the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Sorbonne University and LMU Munich, had told its university leaders that “you better make sure you’ve got a buffer or reserve” to ensure contingency for institutes or labs that relied on EU funding, Professor Deketelaere added.
Preparations for Horizon Europe, set to start in 2021 with a proposed budget of close to €100 billion (£86.8 billion), have become bogged down in disagreements over whether it should redistribute more money across the continent to close the gap in scientific strength between West and East, a direction championed by Dan Nica, a Romanian MEP, one of two rapporteurs appointed to steer the programme through the European Parliament.
But organisations such as Leru, representing large research universities, and countries with strong research systems such as Germany, want to continue a focus on “excellence” – funding the best research proposals, regardless of geography.
The divisions signal that wider EU splits over issues such as migration and authoritarianism between Brussels and countries including Hungary, Poland and Italy were spilling over to make compromise over research policy harder, Professor Deketelaere said.
The negotiations have now entered the trilogue process – a three-way discussion between MEPs, member state governments and the European Commission.
University representatives in Brussels fear that the process could be slowed further by European Parliament elections on 23-26 May – expected to bring in more MEPs from the far left and right, potentially making compromises harder. New European commissioners will then take office in November.
That timescale could also hit the UK's hopes of joining Horizon Europe as an associated country after Brexit. Chris Skidmore, the universities and science minister, has emphasised that talks on association cannot begin until the EU has finalised the programme’s regulations, and warned that European elections and the choice of a new commission will further delay those talks.
On the general picture for Horizon Europe, Lidia Borrell-Damian, director for research and innovation at the European University Association, said that new MEPs could in theory “go back to square one” in negotiations. As much as possible needed to be decided before the election, in order to “protect” Horizon Europe from changes, she said.
The risk was less that researchers were left with a gap in EU funding, she added, but more that in the coming negotiations, Horizon Europe’s budget is downgraded as part of a compromise deal.
Clare Moody, a UK MEP who has been part of the parliamentary committee scrutinising Horizon Europe, warned that “either there’s an agreement this March, or next March”, because new MEPs would take some time to get to grips with the process.
She said that her “gut instinct” was that “we will get there” in terms of an “overall agreement” before the election. But a gap in funding was still “possible”, she acknowledged. “There is a lot of devotion to the programme” and a desire to avoid “chasms” in funding, but there still may not be a “smooth handover”, Ms Moody warned.
Some in Brussels are more confident that an agreement will be reached in time, pointing out that negotiations over the existing Horizon 2020 programme also went down to the wire.
Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said that he was “concerned but not alarmed”. The European Commission “will make it work, I have no doubt”, he said.
But even if a gap in funding is avoided in 2021, Guild universities “are concerned by the lack of clarity” about the exact scope of Horizon Europe’s new “missions”, he warned.
The missions are an attempt to set out “moonshot” scientific projects that the public can relate to. So far, climate change, cancer, healthy oceans and natural waters, carbon-neutral and smart cities, and soil health are all on the agenda.
At a press conference after a meeting of EU research ministers on 19 February, Carlos Moedas, commissioner for research, science and innovation, said that there was agreement on what the “broad areas” would cover. “On the fundamental issues, we all agree,” he added, but urged all parties to push for an agreement before the election. “We need to be ready for 2021,” he said.
An outcomes document released after the meeting revealed that “several delegations stressed the need for a swift political agreement” on how Horizon Europe would be implemented.
Professor Palmowski said that more clarity was needed about each mission’s specific goals. “Ultimately, our researchers have to know with plenty of time,” he said.
- 18 April 2019 – final session of the outgoing European Parliament
- 23-26 May 2019 – European Parliament elections
- 2 July 2019 – inaugural plenary session of the new Parliament
- November 2019 – new European Commission president and new commissioners take office
- 1 January 2021 – Horizon Europe start date