Dismay as Juncker plunders science money

15 Jan 2015 | News
Accusations fly as the European Commission releases details of the money its €315B investment plan will take out of the EU’s Horizon 2020 kitty. The European Institute of Innovation and Technology faces the deepest cut

The European Commission has released details of which areas of research will be cut when  €2.7 billion is taken from the  Horizon 2020 science programme and put into Jean-Claude Juncker’s  new €315 billion investment fund.

The European Institute of Innovation and Technology in Budapest, a pet project of former EU president José Manuel Barroso, is the largest casualty, with €350 million to cut from its budget between 2015 and 2020 – a fall of 13 percent.

The European Research Council (ERC), the EU’s frontier science funder, faces cuts of €221 million between 2016 and 2020.

Science|Business contacted both institutes for reaction but has not received a response.

The budget for ICT research will be cut by €307 million, and nanotechnology and advanced material projects by €170 million.

Overall, Horizon 2020 will lose €860 million of its planned budget in 2016, €871 million in 2017 and €479 million in 2018.

The hastily-arranged new investment facility, the European Fund for Strategic Investment, was announced by Juncker, in November last year.

Juncker’s pump priming Fund pledges €21 billion of EU money that will in theory leverage in almost €315 billion of venture capital and private funds for infrastructure projects, such as expanded energy grids, research facilities and broadband networks.

Negative reaction

Researchers reacted with dismay to the cuts presented by the Commission on Tuesday (13 January).

“It’s a disgrace – it’s money that’s been earmarked,” said Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General of the League of European Research Universities.

Innovation investments are always welcomed, he said, but claims that basic science research will prosper from the Fund are disingenuous.

Typical investments are expected to include broadband networks, improved transport links, retrofitting buildings to increase energy efficiency, third generation bio-refineries, and expansion and upgrading of research infrastructures. No obvious gains for frontier research, in other words.

“The [low] success rates in ERC competitions are already dramatic. If Junker would be able to guarantee a 15-fold return on investment to ERC or other basic research funds by 2020, I would love to agree to his proposal. However, we all know that this is utopia,” Deketelaere said.

There are also governance issues with the new Fund, Deketelaere noted, with no representative from any R&D field in a position of influence. The Fund will be led by a steering board, which will decide on investment guidelines and allocate funds, and an investment committee which will decide which projects will receive support. The investment committee will be made up by six independent market experts and one director.

Where is the scientific outcry?

“I cannot support it,” said Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German member of the European Parliament (MEP). “I’m surprised that there isn’t a louder outcry and no clearer opposition from the scientific community. What are these ministers for research, presidents of science organisations, and scientists themselves doing? Where is the outcry by all European Nobel laureates?”

Christian Ehler, another German MEP, suggests a wider spread of EU programmes should carry the burden of financing the Fund. Along with Horizon 2020, the Connecting Europe Facility, a programme to enhance infrastructure across the EU, is being tapped for €3.3 billion, and is the only other EU programme to have its money diverted. “The criteria and conditions for the allocation of funds remain as vague as the thematic focus of the planned investments,” Ehler said.  

One Brussels-based observer was critical of the Fund going after Horizon 2020 money but credited the EU Commissioner for Research, Carlos Moedas, for fighting off deeper cuts to science. “The amount taken from Horizon 2020 could have been €4 billion instead of €2.7 billion,” he said.

Moedas’ office declined to comment on the cuts to Horizon 2020.

Commission officials, on the other hand, argue it is “appropriate to redirect part of the funding,” from Horizon 2020 and the Connecting Europe Facility.

The Commission says it is mistaken to see the fund as something that had captured research resources. “A reduction of both programmes to finance the guarantee fund is expected to ensure a greater investment in certain areas of their respective mandates than is possible through the existing programmes,” the proposal reads.

EU governments’ negotiations on the investment plan are expected to start on Monday 19 January. The plan will be presented during a meeting of the EU’s finance ministers on 27 January, after which the European Council, the EU forum for member states, plans to agree a general approach by April.

The plan is for investments to be made from mid-2015.

Full legislative proposal here (for Horizon 2020, see pages 34-35)

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