22 Dec 2020   |   News

Viewpoint: ‘We’ve come up with the world’s best research programme’

Christian Ehler says the EU’s long-sought science spending deal ’saved the political face of Europe’

Christian Ehler

MEP Christian Ehler. Photo: EU Parliament.

European People’s Party member Christian Ehler hailed legislators for approving the European Union’s 2021-2027 research spending plan, saying it is, “The best, most modern research programme in the world.”

In 2021, the EU’s Horizon Europe programme succeeds the current scheme, Horizon 2020, which has distributed roughly €74 billion to more than 150,000 scientists over the past seven years.

Ehler, a German and one of the most influential MEPs on research and innovation funding, said the new €95.5 billion scheme (in current prices) will help fuel scientific discovery in the difficult years following the pandemic. The investment also represents “the last chance that Europe has to catch up with the digital revolution,” he said.

The German MEP, who sits on Parliament’s research and industry committee ITRE, highlighted some of the scheme’s new features, while issuing a warning that the massive programme does not diminish the importance of maintaining science investment in member states. And he called for Brussels to embrace the new US administration of president elect Joe Biden, while urging caution on China.

The long-sought deal on Horizon Europe, reached between Parliament and EU governments on December 11, “saved the political face of Europe”, when for most of 2020 it looked like research and innovation would be a sacrifice amid horse-trading over the EU’s next seven-year budget and coronavirus relief package, Ehler said.

The research scheme had €15 billion lobbed off its budget in July, when EU leaders baulked at the cost of science spending, on top of the large stimulus funds required for recovery from the pandemic.

Ehler called out the “political games used to camouflage the fact that science was not a big priority” for some countries. “I would never have thought that Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands would give up their ambition on innovation,” he said.

The budget may not be enough to support EU science over the next seven years, amid signs that the COVID-19 crisis is leaving a lasting toll on government coffers, Ehler said. “We have the biggest EU R&D budget ever, but in the context of the challenges we face, it’s not a proper response.”

Last minute top-ups

The deal on Horizon Europe retrieved €4 billion in a compromise deal with member states and added €5 billion, to come out of the EU’s COVID stimulus fund.

The motivation for Parliament on going into the final round of budget talks with EU governments had been to shore up funding for fundamental research.

Ehler talked about re-balancing the programme to boost “pillar one”, that funds the European Research Council, which gives large grants to individual researchers, alongside competitions that boost scientific careers and infrastructure support for new research facilities.

Before the negotiating session, the budget had been tilting more towards the big industry academic collaborations in pillar two and translational research to support commercialisation in pillar three of the programme (with member states backing nearer-term research to aid economic recovery).

“There was the risk of pillar one falling dramatically short. Now, we’ve helped bring the ERC to a level of budget in which it can shine as one of the best instruments of the union,” said Ehler. The EU’s top science agency gained an additional €1.1 billion, and saw its budget go just above €16 billion.

Ehler is animated about additional funds for research projects in the creative sector, an area he says could become an engine for innovation in Europe.

“We managed €2.4 billion for the creative sector, for the first time. It’s a contribution to disruptive innovation, done the European way. Creativity might be the factor to add so we can differentiate ourselves and not just do innovation the Anglo-Saxon way,” he said.  

Ehler and colleagues in the Parliament also stood up for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology following “lukewarm” support from member states and the Commission. The institute saw its budget go up by €279 million to €3.2 billion.

Credit for breaking the budget logjam should go to the research commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, Ehler believes. “It was the first time I experienced a commissioner engaging in a negotiation like this. Without her there in person, we wouldn’t have made the agreement,” he said.

MEPs also pushed through a proposal to add text to the final agreement, in support of academic freedom in member states. It lacks legal clout, but it will remind EU states of their responsibilities, Ehler said.  

“It is interesting that it took a while to agree on this. You’d have thought it was not even worth a discussion as academic freedom should be a given in Europe. After the Bonn Declaration, you would expect member states to fully support it. The fact that there was [even a debate] about this showed perfectly why it’s needed,” he said.

UK, China and US

For Ehler, there are mixed prospects for developing stronger science ties beyond EU borders. 

A research deal with the UK is dependent on progress in wider trade talks. “We are prepared to integrate the UK into Horizon immediately but if it is a hard Brexit, then it might not be realistic to get them in,” he said. UK-EU talks continue, with nine days left to reach and ratify any agreement.

In terms of opportunities with the US and China, Ehler noted US climate scientists had been living “in exile” in Europe during president Donald Trump’s term in office. “We’ll immediately get into contact with the Americans again on climate change. It doesn’t make sense to do anything here without America,” he said.

With China, “the waters are getting rougher,” said Ehler. “COVID research collaboration was as good and as bad as can be with China. Initially, when it came to the genetic data, China was very open and willing to share with the rest of the world. But on the epidemiological data, what we got was pure government propaganda. There is a choice they have to make on the extent they want to freely cooperate with the rest of the world,” he said.

China and the EU have pledged to co-invest up to €630 million in joint research between 2016 and 2020. Of this amount, the EU committed €500 million, with China making up the remainder.

“We would have to cooperate with China but not with an open, naïve approach of the past. It’s a much politicised area where there are strategic interests at play and we should be aware of them,” Ehler said.

No more Flagships

The billion-euro, ten-year Flagship projects will not be continued in Horizon Europe.

In 2013, the EU launched the Graphene Flagship, which aimed to nurture commercial applications of this material, and the Human Brain Project, which aimed to develop a computer model of all the processes in the brain. A third €1-billion flagship in quantum research started last year.

These broad-brush projects, which some have argued were too expensive and troublesome, will be replaced with targeted missions.

“I think we should have kept the Flagships,” said Ehler. “The Commission had some problems with them but I would have waited for the second round to see how they deliver,” he said, but “with a limited budget, the Commission wants to bet on a new horse.”

The quantum project will continue but it will no longer be called a Flaghip. The name change “shows you that flagships were not the problem,” said Ehler.

Keep lobbying

Despite its bigger budget, Ehler is concerned that as with Horizon 2020, Horizon Europe will see low success rates for popular programmes like the European Research Council.

The current EU scheme has seen huge demand from countries including Italy and Spain where domestic research spending fell dramatically after the 2008 financial crisis. 

Post-COVID austerity may do further harm to the ability of researchers in poorer regions to become more competitive for research funds. “I fear the cost of applying might be equivalent in some places to the money we have allocated to the programme,” Ehler said. “What kind of innovation potential are we losing?”

More generally, he is concerned about a political mood in Europe to take money away from research in crises. EU officials have promoted the importance of research in the recovery from the pandemic, as highlighted by the way in which the Commission and member states have poured several billion euros into vaccine and treatment research.

But words haven’t always matched deeds in a long year of budget haggling, Ehler said. “It’s no longer a given that research and innovation deserve special attention from member states. Research is to be lobbied for in the same way as anything else. That is the learning curve for all of us.”

Perhaps the most dramatic campaigning was undertaken by MEP Pierre Larrouturou, who went on hunger strike to help boost the budget for Horizon Europe and several other spending programmes.

Ehler said, “I thought about it myself, but it would have taken too much time before you’d see impressive weight loss from me.”

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