02 Jun 2017   |   News

Brexit winds buffet planning for next EU research programme

EU research chiefs flag the multiple challenges ahead for Framework Programme 9

Brexit is already unsettling preparations for the 2021-2027 EU research programme.

At separate events in Brussels on Wednesday, two top research officials in the European Commission described new timetables for their budget planning that stretch further into the future – and that could, analysts noted, lead to a delay in the scheduled 2021 start of the EU’s big new research and innovation vehicle, Framework Programme 9. They did not cite a specific reason for the delay, but did note that the loss of the UK eliminates one of the strongest member-state supporters of research and innovation in the bloc.

The Commission will only make its proposal for FP9 next summer instead of at the end of this year, said the executive’s director-general for research and innovation Robert-Jan Smits. A subordinate, Director Kurt Vandenberghe, speaking at another event the same day, outlined a timetable for FP9 action delayed by four to six months from prior expectations: Formal stakeholder consultations on FP9 would open next January or February, an impact assessment the following Spring, and an FP9 proposal later in 2018.

The key trigger for budget action is the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework, the Commission’s long-term spending plan which was due for action early next year. Instead, it is slipping to the Summer – and that affects all other EU spending programmes, including research.

The delay follows an appeal by the EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger on Tuesday that EU budget plans beyond 2020, when the new cycle starts, be tabled for now because of the coming Brexit maelstrom.

It is not yet known how much the UK will pay to leave the EU, with some analyses putting the Brexit bill as high as €100 billion. Clarity on the final figures is only expected to arrive after a protracted political scrap. 

Already, the UK is holding up the revision of the current EU budget covering the period 2014-2020. It has not given its approval to the mid-term review, saying it cannot make any decision until after its June 8 election.

All of this raises the prospect that the EU could reach 2021 without an agreement on the next budget cycle. “My big fear is that we would be left with a [year] gap between Horizon 2020 and FP9 – that would mean a loss of around €10 billion for researchers,” said Smits.

Other analysts speculated that a gap of that sort could be filled by extending the current Horizon 2020 legislation by one year, to 2021 – albeit with a budget cut of up to 15 percent reflecting the UK departure, shared proportionately among the different sub-programmes of Horizon 2020. In essence, this would be the EU equivalent of a “continuing resolution” of the sort used by Washington lawmakers in the past decade, when deadlocked politically over US budget issues.

But a further complication, analysts noted, is the political turmoil that will prevail through 2019 in Brussels, regardless of Brexit. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 2019, and a new Commission will take office the following November. That means any proposals developed now are subject to major revision during 2019 and 2020. In short, rather than the tidy budget planning process that Smits and his colleagues have been working on for the past year, they appear to face the prospect of a wild political ride through at least 2021 – with budgets for universities, research infrastructure, and companies large and small all having knock-on effects.

Budget headache

The UK has been a net contributor to the EU budget, averaging an annual payment of €7.6 billion over the past five years. Plugging this Brexit-related budget hole is just one of several hurdles the new research budget will have to overcome.

Elections in Brussels and budget competition from new EU defence priorities are also expected to greatly complicate FP9 talks, said Smits, adding that scientists can expect a big fight to maintain or improve upon the current €77 billion research warchest.

“It is going to be a tough period politically. You are not only facing Brexit, which means less money for the EU budget, but think about the other challenges like defence and security,” he said.

When it puts forward its FP9 plan, the Commission will rely on various Brussels and member state lawmakers to approve it – a task complicated by a European Parliament election and a change in leadership at the Commission in 2019, with current president Jean-Claude Juncker already ruling out a second term.

Research plans must also factor in the Commission’s drive for greater defence integration, which Smits says will provide big competition for the research programme.

A new, dedicated fund is expected to tap the EU budget to develop high-tech military prototypes. “Defence will certainly absorb a lot of EU money,” Smits said. “It is going to be an enormous discussion – and extremely difficult. If defence was not on the table, I think [research] could have grown to 20 per cent of the EU budget. Now, it will be very difficult to reach that.” Research is a little over 8 per cent of EU spending currently.

To build support ahead of the budget battle, Smits says he is counting on the sway of several prominent lawmakers in the Parliament – he mentioned German MEP Christian Ehler and Polish MEP Jerzy Buzek.

Both MEPs have talked in recent months about getting €100 billion for FP9. “What I will do is keep on quoting their figure and hope it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Smits said.

What’s going in FP9?

On the substance of FP9, Smits – speaking at a conference organised by The Guild, a lobby group of 18 universities – said the European Research Council “should get more money than ever before.” The frontier research agency is widely seen as the EU’s main research success story, having funded almost 7,000 projects, several of which have paved the way for major new breakthroughs.

Smits said ‘excellent science’ competitions – found in the first pillar of Horizon 2020 – would not see dramatic change in the next programme.

Vandenberghe, speaking at an event organised by the IGLO group of national research counsellors, also highlighted the importance of the ERC and excellence – and noted, more generally, that in drafting FP9 the Commission is balancing two pressures: A widespread request from research organisations to keep things fairly stable in the programme, and a need to shake things up to get higher impact. Indeed, in a panel discussion that followed, experts said they would prefer the new initiative be called simply Framework Programme 9 to emphasise continuity with prior Framework Programmes, rather than invent a new name like Horizon 2020. IBM Researcher Lydia Chen, for instance, joked that FP6, 7 and 9 are analogous to Apple’s iPhone 5, 6 and 7: Easy for consumers to understand.

Industrial participation in FP9 is proving another contentious point. Under questioning, Vandenberghe said there is a political perception that big companies are getting too sweet a deal at present – but in fact, he said, the stable statistics on industry participation belie that view. Indeed, in his own comments, Smits said there should be a greater effort to entice promising companies, meaning a shake-up for the ‘industrial leadership’ competitions.

Smits’ boss, EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, has observed that Horizon 2020 offers opportunities to large and small companies, but misses a coveted middle layer of innovative businesses with the potential to scale-up.

“There will indeed be a bigger focus on innovation in FP9,” said Smits, adding that this should not alarm scientists. “The fear of the science community before was that, when we integrated innovation into Horizon 2020, it would be at the expense of science. However, when you look at the amount going to science today, it is still the same. In absolute terms, the science community did not suffer.”

Moedas’ main idea to attract companies is to create a new European Innovation Council, which promises a venture-capital-inspired approach to funding.

Scientists fear the new Council will have little to offer them and note that the advisory team behind the EIC is drawn exclusively from industry.

Ole Petter Ottersen, rector of the University of Oslo and chair of the Guild, made an appeal to Smits to find a place for universities in a future EIC governing board.

“I think they deserve their place there,” Smits replied.