16 May 2012   |   News

Political sea change provides fresh impetus to Horizon 2020 funding calls

As France’s new President Francois Hollande visits Berlin for key talks on the economic crisis, MEPs tell Science|Business he must shift the emphasis from austerity to innovation-fuelled growth - and deliver on his promise to boost R&D

Members of the European Parliament are calling on the new president of France, Francois Hollande, to fight for an increase in the budget of the EU’s flagship research programme Horizon 2020 as the route to spurring innovation and creating growth and jobs. “I am sure [Hollande] agrees that a substantial budget increase for the next EU framework programme for research and innovation [Horizon 2020] will be a precondition for any European growth strategy,” says Christian Ehler MEP (EPP), a German member of the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE) and rapporteur on Horizon 2020's Rules for Participation.

Hollande’s swearing in yesterday (15 May) as the first socialist president of France in seventeen years, the defeat of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU by the social-democrats in last weekend’s local elections and the political chaos in Greece, all point to a renewed focus on growth, a shift that members of the ITRE committee are keen to jump on.

Warning signal

”I think these elections and the general situation in Europe is a warning signal that we need to revisit all our policies and our future budget,” says Maria da Graça Carvalho MEP (EPP). “It will be essential to increase the budget for research and innovation as a means to boost the competitiveness of Europe’s industry,” she said.

Similarly, Greek MEP Ioannis Tsoukalas (EPP) urges that Europe should avoid making the monumental mistake of further reducing the EU's R&D funding. Such a move would be, “Driven by short-term gains and political dogmatism, thus undermining our future prospects,” he said, noting Horizon 2020 started with a proposed budget of €100 billion. “Now we are talking about €80 billion - not counting inflation - and even this amount is being challenged,” warns Tsoukalas.

“We have to bear in mind that, historically scientific research and its transformation to innovative services and products is not some kind of marginal activity but it lies at the core of European economic development and competitiveness,” Tsoukalas adds.

Carvalho is amongst those who initially called for a budget of €100 billion. Now she says, “€80 billion is the absolute minimum for the ambitions that are written into Horizon 2020.” Compared to the current Framework Programme 7 (FP7), the Commission’s proposal for Horizon 2020 represents an increase of just six per cent, but this will have to cover a number of initiatives that are funded separately under FP7, Carvalho claims.

Carvalho, a former Portuguese science, innovation and higher education minister, said she hopes the Council – as part of the European legislature - will support the European Parliament in an effort to increase the overall EU budget.

She was backed by British MEP Peter Skinner (S&D) who said, “An altered electoral map of Europe will allow those of us in the European Parliament who are seeking a higher level of funding for Horizon 2020 to continue to highlight the importance of research and innovation when the calls for austerity are made in the Council or in national capitals.”

James Elles MEP (ECR), a member of the Budget committee, believes that although an overall increase of the EU budget seems out of the question, Europe should refocus its investments: "While recent election results are unlikely to lead to increases in the EU Budget overall, there could - and should - be more intensive discussions as to how available funds should be spent."

It is critical that Hollande focuses on innovation, believes Dutch MEP Judith Merkies (S&D). “It is essential for economic growth and stability that Hollande recognises the importance of stimulus measures for innovation, and wants to invest in well-trained workers with technical skills,” she said.

Although Hollande’s economic policies will be largely in line with those of Nicolas Sarkozy his predecessor, Jean-Pierre Audy MEP (EPP), a French member of the ITRE committee, believes France might now be more inclined to increase R&D funding.

Hollande’s position

Geneviève Fioraso, who was today (16 May) announced as the new French higher education and research minister, told Science|Business on the day of Hollande's inauguration: “The budget allocated to the European research programme should be reinforced, in particular with regards to applied research.” In parallel, fundamental research programmes should be pooled together at European level. “This is a necessary step for Europe to rebound,” she said. Fioraso advised Hollande on innovation policy during his presidential campaign.

“Today, during his inauguration, François Hollande used the words ‘growth,’ ‘innovation,’ and ‘research’ several times,” noted Fioarso. “At the European level, one of the president’s objectives is to restore a balanced budget and stimulate economic growth. He believes innovation has a key role, and insists on the need to boost technology transfer in order to create jobs,” said Fioraso.

Fioraso, as a socialist member of the French assembly, drafted a policy paper published by Hollande during his campaign, which concludes, “It is essential to re-launch ambitious research programmes at a European level and provide them with larger budgets.”

The paper, “Francois Hollande’s Proposals for Higher Education and Research," argues more spending on a European level is essential at a time when China is committing “considerable resources” to research and Korea has set a goal of spending five per cent of its GDP on research in three years’ time. Meanwhile, says the paper, France’s R&D spending has been stuck at 2.2 per cent of GDP for the last seven years, well under the 2010 target of three per cent set in the Lisbon Strategy.

Hollande’s call for an increase in Europe's R&D budget during his election campaign is, “An important signal for us in the European Parliament that our allies in national governments have also seen the importance of research funding to Europe's future,” said Skinner.

The European Parliament has not been sitting on its hands biding time until the recent election results opened up new opportunities, as Audy points out. “We are already working to make Horizon 2020 a very ambitious research and innovation programme, and we have not waited for the statements made by Francois Hollande on the matter,” says Audy, a member of Sarkozy’s UMP party.

European added value

Ehler, a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU, says the European Parliament’s biggest political group is ready to work with Hollande. "The European People's Party will be glad to enter a discussion with Mr Hollande on how we can jointly boost innovation and growth in Europe,” she said.

Hollande’s policy paper stresses the importance of a pan-European approach to R&D funding. Ehler said, “This is primarily a question of political will that must be asserted jointly by France, Germany, the UK, and the Scandinavian countries, to lead the other European countries. France alone will find it difficult to weigh against the international competition.”

Merkies, a socialist member of the ITRE committee, said that member states are increasingly recognising the importance of not only austerity, but also investments in the European economy. “On several occasions, Germany has pleaded in the European Council for an increase of the research and innovation budget,” she said.

If the situation in Europe may seem bad enough now but, “The world in 2025 will be a much more difficult arena for European companies,” says Tsoukalas, pointing to increased competition from Asia and Latin America, “Only through research and innovation will our societies, companies and universities be able to cope with this reality.”

“Investing, heavily, in R&D is the only path for the EU if we want to be able to handle the increasing competition from Asia and Latin America and to be able to retain our position in the world. All the current predictions do not favour Europe,” warns Tsoukalas.

Audy agreed saying, “Citizens are watching and waiting for us to show them Europe’s added value. We cannot afford another failure after the Lisbon Strategy, EU citizens would not forgive us.”

Dutch elections

The Netherlands is heading for early elections in September after its centre-right minority government fell in a backlash over stringent austerity policies. With the Dutch far left currently outranking Merkies’ own Labour party in the polls, and the far right creeping up, she want to see a change of policy after the summer.

“Directed  stimulus policies, sensible investments, attention to education and cutting of bureaucracy lead to a better competitive position, and with that to more jobs. I hope the Netherlands will also get a government that shares this vision for the future,” said Merkies, referring to Hollande’s victory in France.

Shift in rhetoric

The shift in rhetoric coming out of some the members states following the recent election results is welcomed by Europe’s universities, says Kurt Deketelaere, who represents the European League of Research Universities (LERU). ”It is reassuring that [Hollande] recognises the importance of research and innovation funding,” he told Science|Business.

Deketelaere wants to see newly elected leaders carry through on their promises. “Hopefully they will act accordingly in the relevant EU Council formations and will prompt their MEP's in Brussels to do the same.”

Deketelaere applauded Sarkozy’s reforms of France’s higher eduction sector and his science and innovation policy. “We can only hope that [Hollande] will do even better than Sarkozy - who did excellent work in favour of research and innovation policy in France - funding initiatives, infrastructures, grants, and so on.”

The same goes for Merkel, continues Deketelaere. ”Also [in Germany], investments at federal and state levels in research and innovation funding were already significant, so we can only hope that this will not be endangered - on the contrary that it will only increase.”

Greece

The situation in Greece is less rosy, said Deketelaere. “In an economy that will have to be completely rebuilt from scratch, we can only hope that there is still a relevant and sufficient research capacity, and that the future leaders see research and innovation funding is something that is indispensible in order to rebuild the country.”

Tsoukalas fears Europe is losing the battle of innovation and competitiveness, globally as well as internally, “As some member states, including Greece - where I come from - struggle to compete within the European Union.” 

“I am convinced that research and innovation are necessary and essential to give the European Union its rightful place back on the international scene in terms of industrial competitiveness, said Audy, “Without research and innovation we cannot be competitive. Funding research and innovation is funding the future.”

With additional reporting by Maryline Fiaschi.

Updated on 17 May to reflect that Geneviève Fioraso was appointed minister for higher education and research in the new French government

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