29 Sep 2020   |   News

ERC president hopes parliament can fight off ‘streamlined’ research budget

A slight reshuffle of EU’s long-term budget and the pandemic recovery fund could put all elements of Horizon Europe on a more equal footing, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon tells Science|Business

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon

Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, reappointed as President of the European Research Council (ERC). Photo: ERC Twitter account.

Germany’s wish to settle the EU’s 2021 – 2027 budget before handing over the presidency of the EU Council at the end of the year is understandable. But in times of crisis, EU leaders should take a long term view and recognise that speeding the deal through would hurt Horizon Europe, says Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council (ERC).

While Bourguignon had high hopes for the German presidency of the EU Council, the failure to look beyond the end of 2020 has been disappointing. “This lack of vision for me is painful,” Bourguignon told Science|Business.

The French mathematician, who recently returned to the ERC on a rescue mission following the abrupt departure of Mauro Ferrari after only three months in office, said the ERC could recover some of the money cut in the July budget summit. To do so will require member states, the European Parliament and the commission, to agree on a way to reshuffle the recovery fund and the EU‘s long term budget, to balance out spending on different pillars of Horizon Europe, the next R&D programme.

In July, EU leaders agreed to a €80.9 billion budget (in 2018 prices) for Horizon Europe over the next seven years, significantly less than the €94.4 billion the commission proposed in May.

The German presidency of the EU council has put forward two options for where the axe will fall, hoping to reduce the horse trading and enable the programme to be up and running by 1 January.

At a council meeting on Tuesday (29 September), research ministers will discuss whether to make a flat cut across all pillars, or to cut some money from the European Innovation Council to give a small increase to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which support researchers to work abroad.

Bourguignon believes this is too simplistic. “A linear reduction [of all programmes] is fine if you just do a two or three per cent adjustment. But as soon as you do a much more significant [rejig], like 15 per cent in July, maybe you have to rethink a little bit how you organise,” he said.

Of the Horizon Europe budget, €75.9 billion will come from the EU’s 2021 - 2027 budget, with the remaining €5 billion coming from the pandemic recovery fund. The recovery fund will be dedicated to top-down projects to help the EU tackle the pandemic and recover from the economic crisis. That means ERC does not qualify to get money from this source.

Whilst saying, “I am willing to accept” this approach, Bourguignon said some of the cuts to the ERC budget could be reversed if policymakers agree that parts of the programme which are set to receive extra support from the recovery fund see their share of the long-term budget decline. That would compensate for major cuts made to the ERC and other fundamental research funding.

The approach suggested by Bourguignon is not currently on the table. But he is not losing hope, saying MEPs across almost all political groupings are fighting for a bigger research budget, and there is support from the Dutch and German parliaments.

One other option, proposed by MEPs in the budgets committee, is that Horizon Europe could be topped up with money raised by new taxes levied by the EU, an approach Bourguignon believes could work.

What if

It is difficult for EU leaders to plan for the next seven years when they do not even know what the economic situation will be like in six months. If the pressure to fix the 2021 – 2027 budget by the end of the year is taken away, reaching a deal would be easier, Bourguignon said. “I think taking some distance could be the right way,” he said.

In the worst-case scenario, if the council and the parliament are at stalemate, the start of the EU’s next budget cycle will be delayed.

If more time is needed to agree on the budget, a delay may be “painful”, but there are set rules for dealing with this situation. “We are not falling into a black hole. We know there are mechanisms for this,” Bourguignon said.

In the end, the deal must reflect Europe’s high ambitions for the next seven years. What is problematic is this kind of incoherence, between the very high political ambitions - which necessarily must involve developments in research and innovation - and very, very significant reduction of the means which were supposed to be put in place at the European level,” said Bourguignon.

The effects of the reduced budget and the uncertainty are starting to ripple through the research community. As an indicator of the troubles ahead, in its latest funding round ERC received 42 per cent more application than at the same point in 2019.

Many of the applications were submitted in in the last three days before the deadline, which is highly unusual, notes Bourguignon. Typically, applicants withdraw application in the last few days because they feel they are not ready. There are two possible reasons for the reversal in the trend: researchers fear there will not be enough funding available in the future, or national funding is already drying up.

“Research is mainly people. The main concern is that a number of young people will realise they do not have a future in Europe,” said Bourguignon. “That would be absolutely deadly.”

Underfunding of fundamental research has consequences for Europe’s global position in science and innovation. Bourguignon warns China is not backing down, while the US is starting a bipartisan initiative to transform the National Science Foundation, the basic research agency, with a budget of $100 billion over 5 years.

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