11 Oct 2018   |   News

MEP calls for ‘Europe First’ approach to research funding

Romanian MEP Dan Nica, rapporteur on Horizon Europe, wants to make it harder for non-EU scientists to win grants. “We don’t have enough money to send around the world,” he says. Many argue his ideas would damage science

Photo: European Parliament

Romanian MEP Dan Nica wants to re-write rules for EU research to incorporate a “Europe First” approach to funding.

“I welcome the principle of ‘Europe First’,” Nica, rapporteur on the 2021 - 2027 research programme Horizon Europe, told a Parliament hearing on Monday. “We don’t have enough money to send around the world. Three out of four excellent proposals don’t have money,” he said.

Echoing the “America First” stance of US President Donald Trump, Nica said Horizon Europe should focus on European interests.

“Our ambition is to be the United Nations of research and innovation - and I think we are not in a position to do that. I will be a strong advocate for spending the money for the benefit of EU citizens,” he said.

In particular, Nica expressed concerns about China getting access to the EU research budget. “Around 80 per cent of the non-EU nationals winning European Research Council grants are Chinese,” he claimed. “My question is what happens after the grant [ends]? Do they leave right away? If they do, we contribute to the growth of the Chinese economy.”

Hans-Olaf Henkel, German MEP and vice-chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, hit out at Nica’s “ridiculous” proposal, calling it, “a masochist approach to research policies.”

“We need a more global view of R&D in the EU, and not to ape the self-destructive approach of Donald Trump. We need Indians, Chinese, Africans, and Americans, as much as we need Europeans,” Henkel said.

Nica, who along with Christian Ehler MEP is principal drafter of Horizon Europe, stressed, “Not all international cooperation is under a question mark.” Norway, Switzerland and the UK post-Brexit should be treated the same as member states, he said.

That clarification could be significant for these countries, where there is deep concern about Nica’s isolationist vision for Horizon Europe.

In a report in July Nica said the EU should, “Give priority to excellent projects that plan to first commercialise their research and innovation results across the Union.” Proposals that “foresee” first exploitation in Europe should get a higher grade in evaluations. Nica also wants to see reciprocal access for EU organisations to the research programmes of foreign countries.

Nica’s views have caused tremors. The UK’s science minister, Sam Gyimah, came to Brussels to meet Nica and outline concerns about a strongly EU-focused programme. Britain wants access to Horizon Europe as an associate country after Brexit, and is worried exploitation and evaluation clauses could appear in compromise amendments put forward by the Parliament this month.

“If it’s EU money, we need to be careful how we allocate it,” Nica said in the hearing on Monday. There should be new, tougher criteria for non-EU researchers. “If it’s a PhD grant [to someone who] comes here to work in a university that’s fine, but [they] have to work here for at least the same period of [time] after their grant is over. Otherwise, it’s zero contribution for the ultimate goal of an EU global player,” Nica said.

Disputed figures

The ERC says the figure on grants to Chinese nationals quoted by Nica is wrong. It has awarded grants to 34 Chinese researchers out of 8,564 grantees in total. The overall number of non-European grant-holders is 695, and China makes up five per cent of this group, behind the US, Canada, Russia, India and Australia.

The ERC’s mission is to fund the, “very best, creative researchers of any nationality.” A condition attached to ERC grants, which last up to five years, is that researchers must spend half of their time in an EU member state or associated country.

ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon told Science|Business that over 90 per cent of non-European grant winners were already in Europe when they applied for and received their ERC grants. “It is very positive that high-level non-European scientists are here in Europe. Researchers are some of the most internationally mobile professionals. [This] mobility is acknowledged as a crucial way in which scientific knowledge is circulated around the world,” Bourguignon said.  

There is no reason to believe that a substantial number of ERC grantees, whether European, or of other nationalities, leave Europe after their grants expire, according to Bourguignon. “Many have pursued successful research careers here for years.”

Others raise similar reservations to Nica’s ideas. “The conclusion to prevent scientists from moving outside Europe after they complete their European funding is, in my view, wrong,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. “If we want to attract the best researchers to Europe and to contribute to European science, we will not succeed if we put limits on their ability to move after the end of their funding period, even if this is something we wished to do.”

Horizon Europe actually already responds to the core of Nica’s concern through its commitment to open science and open innovation, Palmowski said. “If scientists are forced to share their data and their results, then it does not matter where they move after they have the grant. The work funded by the EU will be available to the public, for the benefit of the citizens.”

First exploitation

From the perspective of Greg Arrowsmith, policy adviser at the Association of European Renewable Energy Research Centres, Nica fears the EU is “a soft touch” when it comes to research funding. “He suspects companies might use the Framework Programme to fund their R&D, then apply the results in factories far away,” Arrowsmith said.

Nica is not a lone voice. There is similar language on “first exploitation” in amendments to Horizon Europe made by centre left MEP Patrizia Toia, and MEPs from the Five-Star Movement, a party now in government in Italy, Arrowsmith noted.

The Greens on the other hand attach a different condition, saying any third country looking to associate itself to Horizon Europe must have signed COP21, the global climate change accord.

The European Commission, meanwhile, wants EU research to be “open to the world”. Its proposal for Horizon Europe, however, contains language that can be read as supportive of Nica’s position, for example, saying, “More emphasis should be given to exploiting the results, in particular in the Union.” This is new compared to the proposal for Horizon 2020, Arrowsmith said.

“I don’t think [Nica’s] ideas are crazy,” said Lidia Borrell-Damian, director of research and innovation at the European University Association. “It would be good if ERC grantees stayed in Europe for enough time to generate new excellent research projects, or eventually to create spin-off companies.”

But expecting people to remain in the EU without a grant is not realistic, Borrell-Damian said. “Who would pay for them to stay?”

Nica’s office did not respond to a request for more details.

The limits to openness

Nica is not alone in his attitude to China. Western governments have spoken out about China’s closed markets and what they claim is a manipulation of trade to dominate global markets.

Drafters of the EU research programme should not be “naïve” about China, Ehler cautioned at a Science|Business meeting last month. The spirit of Horizon Europe, with its aim of being as open as possible, has limits, he said. When it comes to protecting commercial interests, “I’m super-conservative,” he told the audience. “So let’s not be naïve. In some sectors, China is still openly violating intellectual property rights.”

But some researchers regard Nica’s view on China as isolationist and argue that it can only hurt Europe. Collaboration with China, a science powerhouse in basic research, is a positive thing, they say.

“China has surpassed Europe since many years back when it comes to research in natural sciences and engineering,” said Ramon Wyss, vice president of international affairs at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. “The artificial distinction of giving priority to EU citizens will make EU less competitive and - in the end - small.”

Never miss an update from Science|Business

Newsletter sign-up