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Key MEP sees tight budget ahead for EU research

Christian Ehler, at a Science|Business event, predicts a small funding rise for Horizon 2020’s successor, and a European Innovation Council pilot in 2018 or 2019

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German Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Christian Ehler doesn’t foresee a big increase in budget for the next research programme after Horizon 2020.

Speaking at a Science|Business conference last night, Ehler said, “We might not get more money from the member states, let’s be realistic.” Altogether, the most researchers can hope for is “€85 or €90 billion maybe”, and that could be whittled down further in budget negotiations. The current Horizon 2020 budget was set in 2013 at €79 billion over seven years, a big jump from the prior seven-year plan – but that has since been chipped away as new budget priorities have appeared.

National governments have plenty of distractions at the moment, said Ehler – chief among them coming up with a response to a surge of desperate migrants into Europe. As a result, science and innovation spending has fallen down the list of priorities. 

Ehler called his comments speculative – and indeed, it’s the first time anybody in Brussels has floated numbers about the potential size of the next big EU research and innovation plan, to start in 2021. But very preliminary planning for it has already begun inside the European Commission, and a key question will be the approximate size of the budget envelope they might shoot for. The Parliament has generally been a big supporter of increased R&I budgets, and in 2013 some members were pushing for €100 billion over seven years. Ehler was one of the rapporteurs on that legislation.

Instead of looking to national governments for a cash boost, the European Commission will need to do more creative things with its own budget if it wants to push up science spending, said Ehler.

“If we are realistic, the best hope researchers have for a bigger budget will involve an intellectual discussion on a more growth-driven, innovation-driven Structural Funds,” he said. “It’s the only thing on the table to negotiate.” Already under the 2014 – 2020 regional development budget, some €100 billion will be spent on research and innovation, information and communications technology, small businesses and the low-carbon economy.

And don’t even bother asking if extra money can be re-allocated from the EU’s huge agricultural budget, the Common Agricultural Policy. “Member states depend so much on it,” said Ehler. “Getting a unanimous decision [to cut] agriculture? … Not in my lifetime.”

European Innovation Council pilot

A main item discussed at the conference was the European Innovation Council (EIC), a proposal to create a new body focused on innovation that has been floated by Carlos Moedas, EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation.

The Commission is seeking public comment on the idea until April 29, and has not yet made a firm proposal or set a timetable. But Ehler said it could be in test phase in the next two years using money from Horizon 2020. “I would predict we will have a pilot in 2018 or 2019 with €50 million or so,” he said.

He added: “It wouldn’t require new legislation. The Commission is relatively free to act on this – up to 5 per cent of the Horizon 2020 budget can be shifted from A to B.”

Moedas pitched the idea for the new council last summer as a fresh shot in the arm for European innovation. The Commissioner spelled out Europe’s problem as a failure to consistently get research results to market. “Technologies developed in Europe are most of the time commercialised elsewhere,” he said at a Science|Business conference February 16.

A wide range of ideas are already on the table, including a suggestion that the new council should hand out funds for radical new ideas, advise EU lawmakers on innovation issues, or provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ for innovators seeking EU support.

Speaking at the conference, Sergio Bertolucci, former Director of Research and Computing at CERN and now chair of the scientific committee of the ATTRACT Consortium uniting several research infrastructure trying to boost innovation, said his advice to the Commissioner was to “have the courage to run several prototypes. I don’t think the EIC will be born in a day.”

“I am an experimentalist,” Bertolucci  said. “We have to have the courage to test a model. And if it doesn’t work, then another model. There is too little appetite for risk in Europe. We will learn more from failure than success.”

Ehler has a similar ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ approach. “We should always try new things,” he said.

The German MEP said Moedas is giving people what they want: an open call for ideas rather than a Commission-dictated plan. “The guy took a risk. It’s the first time a Commissioner is working off a truly bottom-up idea. He’s delivering what we asked from him.”

For now, there is plenty of talk surrounding the form the new institute will take.

“Of all the potential roles of the EIC, it should look into the framework conditions for innovation,” said Jan van den Biesen, vice president of public R&D programmes with Philips Research.

Companies often observe that the EU is hamstrung by its hazards-based approach to making new laws, which they say fosters a risk-averse political class and public. To balance this out, van den Biesen said EIC advisors could promote an “innovation principle” within the Commission, which would see potential regulation weighed against its impact on economic growth and jobs.

Maria da Graca Carvalho, a former Portuguese MEP and Horizon 2020 rapporteur now working in the Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, said she hopes that the proposals will stimulate further discussion and the creation of new ideas. “Without wanting to pre-empt results of the consultation, in my personal view an advisory panel is a very important [feature] for the EIC,” she said.

And what about a budget for the EIC? That’s the last question you should ask, said Peter Tindemans, secretary-general of Euroscience. “You should not start talking about money. The first question, rather, is how could the EIC create the right conditions and incentives for businesses to succeed? Don’t over-engineer [it].”

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, EIC, FP9