Parliament pushes for more solidarity in EU science funding

It’s wrong that the lion’s share of research money goes to countries that already have the best science. Funds should be redistributed to build a “stairway to excellence” for all member states, says ITRE

Lambert van Nistelrooij MEP says it is unacceptable that most EU research funding goes to the richer member states

A key committee in the European Parliament is pushing the European Commission to distribute research funding more evenly across the member states in a move that would put a bigger emphasis on solidarity.

In its first session after the summer break on 30 August, the European Parliament’s committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) adopted a report with amendments, on a European Commission Green Paper1 that seeks to create a common framework for EU research programmes such as Horizon 2020 and the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) on the one hand, and regional cohesion funding allocated for research on the other.

ITRE’s amendments call for a “stairway to excellence,” which would more actively involve new member states in EU research programmes by - amongst other things - increasing the role of cohesion funds. “Eighty per cent of the European research money is going to the richer countries. Hardly any of the new member states do well in this respect. This is unacceptable,” says Lambert van Nistelrooij MEP, the European People’s Party’s coordinator for regional development, who voted in favour of the proposal.

Marisa Matias MEP (Left, PT), author of the ITRE report, said in an explanatory statement that not only do new member states miss out on most of the EU research funding, they are also not on track for the EU target of raising overall research and innovation investment to 3 per cent of GDP by 2020. Only six countries currently invest more than 2 per cent of their GDP in research and innovation, and all of them are long-standing member states (Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and Sweden), argued Matias.

If adopted by the Parliament’s plenary later this month, ITRE’s proposal could set the stage for a power struggle in the EU legislature in November. If the Commission includes Parliament’s demand for more solidarity in its legislative proposal for the new EU research programme structure, old member states in the Council are likely to resist. Any move towards a more equal distribution of research funding would most likely result in less funding for the old member states, setting the stage for a showdown between East and West.

van Nistelrooij (EPP, NL) emphasised to Science|Business that territorial cohesion – the reduction of social and economic disparities within Europe – remains of fundamental importance to the Parliament: “There is massive support [in the European Parliament] for what we call the stairway to excellence. The stairway to excellence means that we need infrastructure, research-related campuses and that we need specialisation in these upcoming countries. We will now use a much bigger part of the regional structural funds to invest in research infrastructure.”

Communication about European research funding would also benefit from the - regionally controlled - cohesion funds, stresses van Nistelrooij, “What went wrong with the Lisbon strategy is that it was owned by no one. This is the missing link of EU 2020. This story needs owners: countries, universities, provinces, cities.”

Ultimately, van Nistelrooij believes a greater emphasis on solidarity between EU member states when it comes to research funding is inevitable, “Do you think Poland will still be willing to support a new programme if they don’t get a better chance of entrance?” he says.

1Green Paper: From challenges to opportunities - towards a common strategic framework for EU research and innovation funding

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Related subjects: European Commission, European Parliament, European Union, ITRE, Horizon 2020, EPP