Put more money into basic research to stop the brain drain from eastern Europe, says European Research Council head

22 Jun 2023 | News

Maria Leptin looks to how Horizon Europe’s successor programme can help bridge the east-west gap in research performance after visiting Croatia and Slovenia

European Research Council (ERC) president Maria Leptin. Photo: European Union

The EU should double its budget for research to increase the scientific capital of the EU13 countries in the east and stop Europe from falling further behind the US and China, European Research Council (ERC) president Maria Leptin tells Science|Business after a visit to Slovenia and Croatia.

The aim should be to help countries in eastern Europe to attract talent to emerging research clusters, helping to bridge the divide with the world class research systems in western Europe.

The countries that joined the EU after 2004 have made significant progress and more of the EU13 governments now understand the value of public investment in research, as is reflected in success rates in ERC funding competitions, Leptin said.

However, there is more work to do to plug the east-west research gap. With half of the EU lagging behind, there is “a loss to research and intellectual life”, as countries with less developed research systems lose their talent to better-endowed countries. “People who want to do research, go to places where research can be done at the level that they want,” Leptin said.

On her visit to Slovenia and Croatia, Leptin met research ministers and ERC grantees and visited research labs to discuss how the two countries can improve their participation in EU-funded research competitions.

ERC success rates in Slovenia have soared from 1% to 8% in a matter of just a few years. The government has also committed to fund A-grade ERC proposals for which there isn’t enough EU money available. “That's a huge step,” said Leptin.

But the ERC and Horizon Europe do not have enough funding to plug the gap alone. Leptin suggests that to further improve the quality of their science systems, EU13 member states should make more use of other EU funding streams, including the ongoing pandemic recovery programme and the EU regional development fund. “There are many mechanisms by which we can achieve better integration and coordination,” she said.

While this looks straightforward in theory, it can be difficult to put into practice, as the complexities Lithuania faced in transferring money it received from the regional development fund to the Horizon Europe research programme illustrates . “Some countries don't want to, they don't care, and then there's nothing much we can do. But where there is a will, we’re here to help,” said Leptin.

The tour goes on

Leptin is touring EU member states in a bid to convince policy makers and the research community of the value and prestige science can add and persuade them to back a bigger budget for the ERC in the next framework programme. Although Horizon Europe’s successor does not start until 2028, the European Commission has already started sketching out a timeline for negotiations on the new programme.

Leptin is laying the ground now, in particular because ERC receives so many top-grade applications that it can’t fund. Its budget needs to at least double to cover all excellent proposals it receives, ERC says.

“We're beginning to be looking at Framework Programme 10,” Leptin said. “There are many other calls on European money in the future and we just want to make sure that that money isn't taken out of research, and we need the support from the national governments.”

Coupled with this, R&D investment in the EU as a whole is lagging behind China and the US, with very few member states reaching the target of spending the equivalent of 3% of GDP on R&D. This is at odds with EU leaders saying they want the bloc to be a global leader in science and advanced technologies.

“The EU is talking about wanting to lead, we want to be the cutting edge of research and innovation,” said Leptin. “Where's that going to come from if we forget to fund, not only fundamental science, but also science that leads to innovation.”

At the beginning of her mandate, Leptin vowed to get more funding for the ERC and ensure it can set its own direction in backing excellent basic science and not have to bow to pressure from policymakers who want to put money into applied research, translation and commercialisation.

Thanks to maintaining its autonomy, the ERC was recently able to refuse a request by the Commission to move its headquarters from the Covent Garden building in Brussels to another location nearby. The move is part of a broader plan by the Commission to cut down the carbon footprint of its buildings, but the ERC wanted to be able to operate in the same building where its army of evaluators make funding decisions.

Other EU agencies, including the Research Executive Agency and the European Innovation Council and SMEs Executive Agency will move to a new building in September.

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