Politics is often conducted through code words - and the current European Union debate over the future of its proposed €80 billion R&D funding programmes is no exception. Thus, at a conference in Aarhus, Denmark last week, the Danish Presidency of the EU publicised a declaration on the importance of one word - ‘Excellence’ - in funding science.
The EU, as it considers legislation for its Horizon 2020 R&D plan, must “maintain excellence as the leading criterion for the EU’s research and innovation programmes,” said Morten Østergaard, Danish Minister for Science, Innovation and Higher Education, in a speech prepared for the conference at Aarhus University April 20. He spoke as a conference declaration on the topic was published, drafted on the advice of a panel of five research leaders, including European Research Council President Helga Nowotny.
That anybody thinks ‘Excellence’ is, well, excellent would hardly count as news under normal circumstances. But in the echo chamber of Brussels, where politicians are debating the size and shape of Horizon 2020, it amounted to a strong political message. It concerns the ‘excellence v. cohesion’ dialectic: How much of the €80 billion proposed for Horizon 2020 will be spent to build up scientific capacity in the less-developed regions of Europe for the sake of social cohesion, and how much will go to strengthening science in the best regions for the sake of European excellence and competitiveness?
This has developed into a bare-knuckled fight in the European Parliament, pitting much of eastern and southern Europe against western and northern Europe - with many exceptions, such as Poland which has sided with the more-developed regions on this issue. The whole thing is likely to come to a head later this year when Cyprus takes the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, or early next year when Ireland takes the helm.
The significance of the Danes initiating the debate in the current half-year lies in a bit of EU history: The last time they held the EU Presidency, in 2002, the idea of a European Research Council - with its emphasis on peer-reviewed, only-the-best grants - moved from pipe-dream to political possibility.
The European Commission’s position in the current debate is that both sides will get what they want, through the simple expedient of providing separate pots of money for them to fish in. While much of the Horizon 2020 funding would be allocated to ‘Excellent’ research and innovation, even more money will be available for ‘capacities-building’ from the Cohesion Fund that the EU has long maintained for economic development in Europe’s poorer regions.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, repeated that point in an address to the Aarhus conference. “Between 2007 and 2014, for every euro spent by the ERC, we forecast that the cohesion funds will invest at least another €10 supporting research and innovation in the cohesion regions. In addition, I have been working hard with my colleagues to ensure that Horizon 2020 and cohesion funds will work together more seamlessly in the future,” she told delegates.
Shrinking money pots
The problem, however, is that a coming crunch in the overall EU budget later this year could shrink all the money pots - forcing hard political choices among competing priorities. Hence, the din of political code words at this early stage in the process.
The Aarhus Declaration, named after the highly ranked Danish university at which it was released last week, is a kind of manifesto of the ‘Excellence’ side in the debate.
“It is essential that Europe strengthen its science base, with excellence as the guiding principle,” the declaration begins. “Excellent research should be identified by careful evaluation of research proposals and applicants, carried out in an open competition by internationally acclaimed experts. The evaluation should follow internationally acknowledged standards and criteria in a fair and transparent assessment procedure that prevent national, social or gender bias. By doing so, it is possible to identify and support the very best people with the most ambitious ideas.”
The declaration drafters were advised by Jerzy M. Langer, Professor and Foreign Secretary of Academia Europaea; Enric Banda, Director of Science, Research and Environment at la Caixa Foundation and President of Euroscience; Dieter Imboden, former President of the European Heads of Research Councils; Gunnar Öquist, former Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; and the ERC’s Nowotny.
Note: The writer was a moderator at the conference.