With report in hand, Moedas aims for a win in budget talks

04 Jul 2017 | News

EU research commissioner hopes study by former WTO head can help persuade Commission colleagues, member-states to boost research spending

After months of preliminary skirmishes, the long-expected war over the European Union’s budget priorities began in earnest over the past week – and the EU research Commissioner is hoping that an influential report released Monday will give him an early edge.

Carlos Moedas would like to see a big rise in research and innovation spending, from about 8 per cent of the total budget today. A report Monday by former World Trade Organisation head and EU trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, with 11 other research, industry and finance heads, gave him some prominent allies, as the group called for the next EU budget cycle starting in 2021 to double spending on research and innovation.

The report brings cross-sector credibility and greater attention to the pro-research argument, says Moedas, noting the unusually large number of journalists who turned up for the report’s release in Brussels. “By starting today, I think we will be ahead in the discussion. I am an early starter [and] being the first to call the shots will have a very good effect,” Moedas told Science|Business in an interview.  

Facing stiff competition

That may be, but it is certainly going to be a long and hard fight ahead – for which the commissioner will need to broaden his alliances even farther. The main problem is that the competition for money is rising fast. Agriculture, with 40 per cent of the budget, and regional development, with 30 per cent, already have powerful constituencies preparing to defend their ground. Demand is also rising to spend more on security, defence and economic stimulus. And all this comes as the prospect of the UK leaving the bloc risks cutting available funds by roughly 15 per cent.

With a deadline of mid-2018 for a proposal for the next framework research programme, Moedas said his job now is to “build the narrative” for a bigger budget.

The Commissioner expects that the report authors will put the study in front of their governments. “Each of the members will have the responsibility of endorsing and selling one of the recommendations,” said Moedas. “It is a group that has a huge credibility [and] the ears of their prime ministers and presidents. Pascal Lamy can sell it himself directly to heads of government.”

Moedas got some early endorsements at a conference launching the report Monday – with the Estonian research and education minister, the Spanish state secretary for research and innovation, and a few other member-state dignitaries showing up to signal support. But noticeably missing from the group were any top member-state finance, agriculture or regional-development officials, whose support – or at least non-opposition – will be needed in budget negotiations.

What would Macron do?

In the conference corridors Monday, the common wisdom among research lobbyists and officials was that two officials, in particular, are going to be vital to success: French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and both are, at the moment, ciphers. Before the French elections, Moedas made a point of establishing a rapport with Macron; both men are of a similar age and background, and both speak highly of science and technology. Moedas tweeted a picture with Macron on at least one occasion. But nobody knows yet whether this translates into France, usually the biggest backer of farm subsidies, changing its tune. Even more mysterious is how Merkel will respond, given the splits within her own political party over farm subsidies.

Then there is what the commissioner called the “internal sell” in Brussels. “I have to endorse it with my colleagues. I will present it to [them] and explain what is behind it,” he said in the interview.

That will pose challenges. The report suggests, in carefully ambiguous terms, that the Commission’s research and innovation priorities should have more political weight in how regional development, agriculture, competition and other parts of the Commission operate. The report suggests that a “substantial proportion” of the EU’s farming and structural funds should be used for “universities, research centres, incubators, science parks and innovation diffusion activities”. It also suggests merging a small-business programme, COSME, into the research programme, and connecting the innovation consortia of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology into the main research programme. These are fighting words in the turf-conscious Brussels bureaucracy. 

But Moedas has enlisted at least a few early allies among his colleagues. Speaking at a Science|Business conference last week, Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen called for more money for the EU’s research and innovation programme – and then he repeated the message at another event later in the week. And a noteworthy guest at the Lamy report launch Monday was the powerful competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager. One  possible solution, analysts suggest, is working out a shared budget responsibility between multiple Commission departments when topics, such as agriculture or regional development, intersect with research and innovation spending.

Small print for review

But the report itself, Moedas thinks, is a good first step in the negotiation process. He is careful to avoid endorsing particular details of the report; that, it appears, might risk antagonising potential allies unnecessarily. But for the broad messages, he said, “I endorse the report as a whole, all the top line stuff. For me, what I take out of it is: Full steam ahead with the European Innovation Council, and full steam ahead with mission-driven science.” Both are proposals he has been pushing – to create a new body to consolidate and improve funding for entrepreneurs and innovators, and to tackle popular goals like boosting cancer survival rates.

Aside from these proposals, all the “small print” in the report will need careful review, the commissioner added. Asked about one idea in the study – that applicants in the future should get a choice between cost-based or lump sum funding for their project – Moedas said it was a debate among the Commission and science community that needed more airtime.

“It is a discussion that has been out there in the street. Many people come to me and say they want lump sums, a lot of people say the opposite. I have to form a view on it. 

“There’s some views in the services that [the lump sum payment] would be more difficult [to administer]. I think I also have to respect that,” he added.

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