Commission budgets extra research funds for Green Deal, university networks

31 Mar 2020 | News

EU releases new Horizon 2020 funding plans, announces €450M in ERC basic science grants

The European Commission updated its 2020 spending plans to pump some extra money into climate-related research and a networking programme for European universities. It also announced €450 million in new basic science grants by the European Research Council.

In a revised “work programme” for its Horizon 2020 research funding, the commission allocated €350 million for small companies with ideas that support the commission’s new “Green Deal” climate action initiative. Another €103 million is for efforts that include better connecting universities across the EU.

The commission has also allocated “hundreds of millions” of euros over the past month for COVID-19, according to research Commissioner Marija Gabriel. The new budget document spells out only the first €47.5 million of that, announced 30 January. The rest includes up to €90 million for public-private pharmaceutical research, a €80 million loan guarantee for German vaccine company Curevac, and as-yet unspecified millions for small company innovations – all from different budget pots. A further Horizon 2020 budget update is expected in the summer, officials said.

Bat flu research

At the same time, another part of Horizon 2020, the European Research Council, named winners of its latest, regular round of frontier-research grants for senior scientists. All of the proposals were submitted before the COVID-19 outbreak, but the agency highlighted a researcher studying flu viruses in bats – one of the possible animal sources of the new coronavirus in China.

The researcher, Martin Schwemmle of University Medical Centre Freiburg, is studying the influenza A virus – a cousin to the now-infamous SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus – in bat populations. His €2.5 million, five-year Advanced grant is to investigate how the virus binds to the animals’ immune cells, rather than lung cells as with COVID-19. “This raises the obvious question of whether these viruses might also pose a threat to human health,” the agency said in announcing the award.

Other ERC grants in this latest round include fundamental research into blocking cancer cells from dividing, using tree rings to study climate change, and the question of how economics can “address violence against women?” Applicants for ERC grants propose their own research topics, rather than targeting a specific EU policy goal. Of the 1,881 applicants for this round, 185 were selected. Of the winners, 34 went to applicants in the UK – a drop from past success rates from the UK’s strong universities, the agency said.

Separately, the commission announced an 18th grantee for its “emergency” COVID-19 research fund: a consortium led by Dublin-based HiberGene Diagnostics. The company is developing a new test for the virus that it says can deliver a result within an hour.

Month-to-month funding?

The revised Horizon 2020 work programme, which runs into the hundreds of pages, spells out in detail how the commission will spend the programme money in this, its final year. Normally, this would be a purely bureaucratic exercise, mandated by budget law. But if, as many in Brussels are now speculating, the EU is unable to agree this year on a budget plan for 2021-27, it may use the 2020 budget as a one-year, or even month-to-month, template for 2021. That would mean the current work programme will shape next year’s Horizon budget, also.

Still, the revision shows the commission trying to anticipate – within the limits of the current law - some of its longer-term budget plans.

The biggest of these, before COVID-19 intervened, was the Green Deal proposed by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – a broad shift in EU funding and policy towards a climate-neutral economy. For that, the new work programme includes €303 million for small companies to scale up their green innovations, with accelerator grants and equity investment from the European Innovation Council. The remainder of the new €350 million Green Deal research money includes funds for early-stage innovations in the EIC’s “pathfinder” programme.

A second initiative makes €103 million available to get the commission’s research and education programmes – run by different parts of the bureaucracy – to work better together. The biggest part of that, €82 million, is to contribute Horizon 2020 money to an education programme called  European University Networks. The initiative, first proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron, encourages universities in different EU member states to form consortia to teach and research together. Gabriel, whose portfolio includes both research and education, is planning in June to announce a broad strategy to coordinate the two policy areas – both within Brussels, and with the 27 EU member states.

In total, the revised work programme details €8.8 billion in spending plans for 2020 – an increase of €138 million from the prior plan, and part of a broad 2020 budget deal agreed last year by the European Parliament, EU Council and commission. Some of climate, university and COVID-19 funding comes out of that extra money, and some comes from shifting money from one part of the budget to another. To add to the budgetary complexity, the ERC, Euratom and some other research activities are authorised outside the new work programme – meaning total research-related spending will be roughly €13 billion for the year. EU releases new Horizon 2020 funding plans, announces €450M in ERC basic science grants

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