11 Dec 2019   |   Viewpoint

Viewpoint: For the R&D community, only strong lobbying can stop budgets crumbling

Research leaders battling EU budget cuts should take a leaf from the farmers’ playbook: Get better organized, and get noisier

John Wyles speaking at a Science|Business event.

Lobbying is a very old game, but often with new players. This week, as EU leaders gather to argue about their next budgets, my thoughts fly back to a dominant and highly effective lobbying model regularly practiced more than 30 years ago.  

At the time, I was working for the Financial Times. Reporting the European Community (as it was then) in the 1980s was not for those of a nervous disposition. As the firecrackers noisily exploded around your ankles, approaching the Berlaymont seemed as perilous as navigating a minefield. At the same time, pavements were aggressively occupied by large men with weather-beaten faces. Europe’s farmers had hit town. 

They came to the heart of the European quarter to disrupt and usually to demand larger funds to inflate their subsidies. They parked their tractors in strategic locations and regarded lengthening tailbacks with glassy indifference as  some of Brussels main arteries steadily seized up. And their tactics worked – backed, naturally, by coordinated lobbying in national capitals. But the public show in Brussels certainly focused minds.

This week, EU leaders are arguing over how much to spend on EU programmes from 2021 to 2027. Horizon Europe’s proposed 8 per cent share of that budget is a sliver of the 70 per cent plus commanded by the Common Agricultural Policy of 35 years ago, but still a considerable distance from the 28.5% tabled for the CAP by the Commission in the next multiannual budget. Agriculture’s lobbying power is clearly in decline, partly because rural populations are shrinking as is the contribution it makes to the European economy.

Are the priorities right?

Nevertheless, it has long been a standard criticism of the Union that the massive discrepancy in spending on these sectors continues to be a bizarre statement of political priorities. 

While for political and environmental reasons agriculture is and will continue to sit at or near the top of the EU27’s sweetheart budgets, is it really as important as research and innovation?  Does it hold the key to Europe’s future economic competitiveness? Can it enhance longevity and the quality and of life through breakthrough treatments for once-fatal illnesses?  Will it rival research and innovation in developing the as-yet unimaginable applications of digital technologies for everyday use?  

Farming will probably have work to do in wrestling with the damaging consequences of climate change, but it cannot be pivotal in the search for solutions to the causes of rising global temperatures.

Though careful to avoid provoking the rural beast into action, European leaders are having their sleeves tugged by the geopolitical challenges posed by China’s meteoric development of new digital technologies. As Europe’s share of the world’s population steadily shrinks and great power rivalry becomes ever more disruptive, they need to appreciate that European science and innovation is struggling to keep the old continent relevant in the relentless global competition for power, influence and resources.

Unfortunately, much more pressure is needed from below to push governments into higher funding for research and innovation. Technological breakthroughs in medicine, manufacturing and leisure goods are served up with the daily news diet for peoples’ gratification.  Such reporting rarely makes reference to the investment in material and brainpower that lies behind the achievements.

Time to get organised

All of which suggests to me that universities, companies and charities need to step up their lobbying power. National,  regional, sectoral and institutional rivalries need to be damped down in the interests of collective lobbying and public communications– above all in national capitals and the European Parliament. 

Timidity at the European level was recently chastised by Christian Ehler, the MEP who is a rapporteur on the Horizon Europe proposal to the European Parliament, and has warned of a likely €12 billion cut in Horizon’s budget. Urging Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council, to oppose the cut, Ehler observed “You’re lobbying the European institutions in the traditional way, but shouldn’t the ERC be going out a little bit more?”

The first step must be to form a broad coalition with representatives of the main science and research disciplines to both drive the lobbying effort and clothe their disparate and fragmented activities with a trans-Europe identity. And this coalition must include industrial interests: After all, European multinationals like Sanofi, Siemens and Ericsson also need the EU R&D programmes to support their own innovation.

Of course, there have been some attempts to organise the R&D community in the past year – but they have been riven by competing interests within the community: basic research vs. applied, health vs. climate, small companies vs. large, eastern Europe vs. western. And their actions have been largely limited to publishing chain letters or joint statements.

Mapping a strategy

Instead, an effective coalition’s lobbying strategy must target key member states making the biggest contributions to the EU budget and seeking the largest cuts in the 2021-2027 period.  Messages should highlight the sacrifices that will have to be made to achieve a €12 billion budget cut and the consequences for the quality of peoples’ lives and Europe’s ability to be a player in the global competition for technological leadership.

Lobbyists must also stress their support for the Commission’s priority to boost research opportunities and standards of excellence in countries that have most ground to make up if they are going to rate in science and innovation league tables.

This will be an important aspect of the campaign. As co-legislators, members of the European Parliament will be very interested in a stronger equal-opportunities approach to allocations from the Horizon Europe budget. Sufficient numbers of MEPs need to be enlisted to defend the Commission’s budget proposal against trade-offs between sectoral interests that will be at the expense of science and technology.

A visibly united front behind a common purpose capable of mobilising popular support needs to be the objective. Persuasion built on a formidable and sympathetic profile is the name of the game. There is no need for laboratories and research centres across Europe to be planning direct action. But they do need to be robustly organized in Brussels and national capitals.  This means demonstrating focus, passion and creative use of social media.

Otherwise, nobody will listen.

John Wyles, a Brussels-based journalist and consultant, is a member of the Board of Directors of Science Business Publishing Ltd.

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