The big guns of Europe’s scientific and business establishment have been out in force this week, lobbying EU leaders against making cuts to research spending as the Council meets once more to try and agree on the budget for 2014 – 2020.
There is growing concern that with cuts to the overall budget – the multiannual financial framework (MFF) – looking inevitable, the proposed €80 billion Horizon 2020 R&D programme will be pruned back in favour of maintaining spending on the Structural Fund and the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).
That fear prompted the European Round Table of Industrialists to send a letter that was published in a number of national newspapers, protesting against a cut. The League of Research Universities (LERU) added its voice, while there were letters of protest from French scientists to President Francois Hollande, and the vice chancellors of the UK’s 24 leading research universities signed a letter to the Financial Times.
Cutting not the way forward
While the concern about possible cuts is not new, the volume of protest from across Europe seen in the last week is unprecedented. Science|Business spoke to some of the protagonists to gauge the current feeling.
Cutting research budgets is the worst possible action to take at such a time, say Horizon 2020’s defenders. Professor Helga Nowotny, President of the European Research Council (ERC), told Science|Business, “The €80 billion proposed for Horizon 2020 is a realistic budget to cope with the challenges Europe has to face in the next seven years. To drop much below that would seriously hamper Europe's competitiveness.”
“We risk losing a generation of young people who will not be able to remain where they are now,” Nowotny said. “This affects industry as well as academia. Industries want well-trained people from our universities and research centres – restricting the range of knowledge and skills available will be bad for industry and for Europe's economic future.”
Nowotny's sentiments were echoed by three other influential academicians and industrialists, Leif Johansson, the Chairman of Ericsson who also chairs the European Round Table of Industrialists, Peter Löscher the President and Chief Executive of Siemens and the Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt, in the open letter to EU leaders published last week.
The letter points out that at 1.9 per cent of GDP, EU spending on research and development is significantly less than spending in the US at 2.8 per cent, Japan,3.3 per cent and South Korea at 3.4 per cent. This is a clear indicator that Europe should not cut its research budget: Europe's future can only be built on its brains, and sustainable growth and employment requires increased investment in education, research and innovation.
US confirms importance of continuing to invest
This view was echoed across the Atlantic. The US is facing a similar dynamic in terms of research budgets, said Joanne Carney, Director, Office of Government Relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As in Europe, decision-makers in the US are facing difficult problems. “But you cannot cut your way out of investing in research and recovery. Investments into R&D are investments in our future,” Carney told Science|Business. The US research community is continuing to lobby the government against any cuts. “We're not just sitting down and letting it happen.”
Important to fund the best
As negotiations on MFF resume, leaders of some of Europe's most prestigious universities renewed their call for the Horizon 2020 budget to be approved according to the European Commission's original proposals. LERU maintains that even small changes in research and development can have a significant long-term effect on employment, as well as offering a rate of return for publicly funded R&D at over 30 per cent. In particular, LERU says, EU funding enables the best researchers in Europe to work with each other, delivering a higher quality of research and citations with greater impact.
LERU's Secretary General, Kurt Deketelaere, told Science|Business the risk for Horizon 2020 is one of overall decline unless a realistic budget is agreed. He believes that a vote on the programme is undesirable before the EU's overall budget is approved and stakeholders can be certain of the budget for research. If it is too little, he said, then Horizon 2020 would need to be modified significantly.
“LERU's bottom line is that an overall reduction of say, 10 per cent in funding for all EU policy fields would not be practicable for the research sector. If this is the decision, then the Council has to make a choice – save all initiatives that stimulate jobs and growth – the rest have to give way.”
“That means – keep €80 billion for Horizon 2020 and do not include the big research infrastructures [that is Galileo and ITER.] within that amount, but use a separate budget for them. Then plan reductions in other areas to compensate for the budget-fixing in those fields,” Deketelaere said.
Decision time approaching
Meanwhile, the European Parliament is generally in favour of protecting the budget proposals for Horizon 2020, as are some European governments. For example, although it wants to see cuts to the overall MFF, the UK government is in favour of the Horizon 2020 proposal. David Willetts, the UK Science Minister, was not prepared to discuss figures but he told Science|Business that the UK government position is to cut back on CAP and maintain R&D spending. However, other governments see Horizon 2020 as no more deserving of protection than CAP and the Structural Funds. If cuts have to be made, it should be included.
The European summit will be a difficult one. The key decisions have already been delayed from the last Council meeting in November 2012, an indicator of the difficulty of the negotiations. If an overall reduction in MFF is the outcome, certain MEPs are saying they will urge the Parliament to oppose it, and are organising to that end.
If a decision on Horizon 2020 is blocked in the European Parliament, then the financial fog that is currently obscuring research planning will continue.