30 Oct 2020   |   News

Grassroots push by EU-funded researchers raises stakes in budget battle

German MEPs Sven Simon and Christian Doleschal want the commission to come up with a plan to pay researchers whose Marie Curie projects were affected by the pandemic. In parallel, scientists are voicing their concern that a shortage in EU funding could force them to choose career paths in the US or China

Grassroots EU funded

A grassroots push by researchers for more EU fellowship and grant funding gained momentum, as two MEPs and a group of individual scientists mounted letter-writing campaigns.

Two German members of the European Parliament have asked EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel to come up with a political solution to finding enough money to cover extension costs for research fellowship grantees whose projects were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. In a letter sent on 28 October and seen by Science|Business, MEPs Sven Simon and Christian Doleschal asked Gabriel to “enact exceptional circumstances clauses for all Horizon 2020 recipients and thereby show that the EU truly cares about research and researchers.”

In parallel, EU-funded scientists have sent letters to the European Parliament to ask MEPs to carry their fight for budget increases for Horizon Europe. More than 30 researchers demand budget increases for the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Skłodowska Curie (MSCA) and warn they could be forced to continue their careers outside the EU if slimmed-down research budgets will not cover their funding needs in the next seven years.

Both campaigns arose from an older fight by two MSCA researchers who protested the European Commission’s refusal to cover costs incurred by the coronavirus lockdowns this spring. In August, Nathalie Conrad and Antonia Weberling, filed individual complaints to the EU Ombudsman to look into the commission’s failure to cover extended costs for MSCA researchers who had to halt or postpone their projects during the pandemic.

The Ombudsman has recently launched a formal investigation into the matter and asked the commission to explain how it “takes into account the COVID-19 crisis when managing these grants, and how the commission communicates with the beneficiaries of MSCA grants and their recruited researchers.”

The effort made by Conrad and Weberling has caught the attention of MEPs Simon and Doleschal, who soon decided to help the grantees and opened official talks with the commission’s directorate general for research (DG RTD).

In the meantime, the two researchers also launched a broader campaign asking fellow scientists to write letters to the European Parliament to complain that the budget deal reached last month by EU research ministers falls short of their needs.

Conrad and Weberling were disillusioned by the commission’s handling of MSCA projects delayed by the pandemic. Weberling is a PhD fellow in the ImageInLife project working on embryonic modelling in mice at Cambridge University. When she returned to her lab after the lockdown imposed by the UK government this spring, Weberling had to spend three additional months breeding new mice, costing her time that the MSCA grant could not cover.

The commission had also suggested researchers could apply for unemployment benefits. But for Conrad, who is working at KU Leuven on very large biomedical datasets for epidemiological studies, that would have been impossible. She has Swiss citizenship, and the Belgian government would not grant her unemployment benefits because she hadn't made enough social security contributions.

Pandemic funding shortfall

In the case of many MSCA researchers, the lockdown during the pandemic hindered their ability to carry on with their projects, particularly if the projects required laboratory work and travel to a research facility. Some researchers were forced to postpone or extend the timelines of their projects without being paid.

According to Simon and Doleschal, for researchers working on projects relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission applied a new clause that extended the costs, but scientists working in other fields were left out. “We cannot fathom why in other research areas, i.e. in the field of cancer treatment and diagnosis, such clauses have so far not been enacted,” they said in a letter to commissioner Gabriel on Wednesday.

Sources who have been briefed on the negotiations between the MEPs and the commission told Science|Business that DG RTD’s options were constrained by broader rules in the EU’s financial regulations, according to which the commission can pay beneficiaries of EU-funded projects only for the work they are conducting.

The MEPs decided to take the matter higher up in the commission rankings and asked for a meeting with Gabriel to find a political solution to the problem. The commissioner had to postpone the first meeting after been diagnosed with COVID-19. Earlier this week, the two sides were scheduled to meet again but the meeting took place only with representatives of the commissioner’s cabinet, as Gabriel’s agenda had shifted at the last minute.

After the meeting, the MEPs decided to write a letter directly to the commissioner. “We urge you to work with us and the research community to sustain the MSCA fellowships and support researchers in this exceptional time,” Simon and Doleschal said in their letter

“The current regulatory framework was exhausted, and we have now to resolve it on a political level,” Simon’s chief of staff, Johannes Volkmann told Science|Business.

The commissioner’s cabinet has not replied to a request for comment.

The demand comes at a difficult time for the commission and for the EU research budget. The parliament and member states have not been able to unlock a stalemate over how much money the EU should spend on its flagship research programme over the next seven years.

Simon and Doleschal expect Gabriel to provide solutions to MSCA grantees within the next 14 days.

“On the budgetary side, we therefore ask you to explore ways to re-designate unused funding from your Directorate-General or other DG’s or seek alternative forms of funding,” the MEPs said. “Regulatory inertia must not stand in the way of keeping the EU attractive as an employer to PhD students and post-doctoral academics.”

Researchers enter fight for bigger budget

While securing a level-playing field for researchers affected by the pandemic is an important short-term goal, researchers are also worried about their future. Science|Business has seen 31 letters gathered by Conrad and Weberling from EU-funded researchers from across the world who think the budget proposal for Horizon Europe will not be enough.

In September, EU research ministers enacted a deal reached by EU leaders at a summit in July, which saw the €94.4 billion proposed for Horizon Europe over the next seven years reduced to €80.9 billion (at 2018 prices). In the current deal, the MSCA programme could see its budget raised by €200 million.

But, in their letters, researchers say that is not enough and the EU should reverse the cuts and are now asking the parliament to keep the pressure on, as member states reject the idea of top-ups for the research programme.

The group of 31 researchers are scattered across the EU and beyond. Among them, there are early career researchers but also senior scientists working from Belgrade to Warsaw and from Barcelona to Strasbourg. Some are also recipients of MSCA's global fellowship which enabled them to work at prestigious universities in the US.

“Recently proposed cuts to the EU research budgets will be devastating for the research community, affecting especially early-career researchers, so those with innovative and interdisciplinary ideas, passionate, willing and able to invest time,” said former MSCA fellow and post-doctoral researcher at Maastricht University, Katerina Kandylaki.

“With a drop in EU funding our research will become very difficult, and the success rates which are already low (5-10 per cent) will become dramatic,” said Thomas Hermans, the director of a complex systems laboratory at the University of Strasbourg. 

In many of the letters, researchers also expressed their worry that a shortage in EU funding over the next seven years could force them to choose career paths in the US or China.

“I cannot imagine leaving the EU to perform research elsewhere,” Kandylaki wrote in her letter published on Twitter.

“Academia is already a very competitive and hard world, and lowering funding further will push the best new talents outside of the EU,” Hermans wrote in his letter also published on Twitter.

Editor’s note: This story was updated 2 November to remove the original letters and link to some published on social media.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up