Horizon Europe successor needs €200B to meet future challenges, say MEPs

11 Oct 2023 | News

Budget discussions are on for the EU’s next R&I funding programme, due to begin in 2028, and the European Parliament wants more than twice as much as was agreed last time

MEPs Christian Ehler and Maria da Graça Carvalho have called for the EU’s next R&I framework programme to have a budget of €200 billion. Photo: Emilie Gomez / European Union

The European Union’s next seven-year science funding programme has to have a budget of €200 billion to ensure that future challenges can be met, say two of the European Parliament’s top voices on research and innovation policy, Christian Ehler and Maria da Graça Carvalho.

The MEPs’ calls to more than double Horizon Europe’s budget of €95.5 billion for the next framework programme – the 10th overall, commonly referred to as FP10 – sets the stall out for what will likely be the Parliament’s position for the next programme’s budget. But others in the research community cautioned that it’s unlikely to sail through as Parliament wishes, because the member-states that pay the EU bills are always more parsimonious.

While the EU’s current seven-year R&I Framework programme is only approaching the half-way point, budget discussions for its successor are already underway. “Believe me, the discussion is open right now,” Ehler said, speaking yesterday at an event on science-driven solutions for sustainable food co-hosted by the Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology (STOA) and the EU’s major basic science funding programme the European Research Council (ERC). 

Carvalho also called for a doubling of the R&I budget at a separate event on Tuesday that was part of the EU’s Week of Regions and Cities. In a comment to Science|Business, Carvalho insisted that doubling the budget is not a mere ambition but an absolute necessity if the EU wants to reach its green and digital goals.

Asked to comment, MEP Eva Maydell said the Parliament must fully back the EU’s R&D sector with adequate financing but stopped short of repeating the €200 billion figure.

She added that public funds must be complemented by private investment if the EU wants to achieve its strategic autonomy ambitions. “In parallel to this we have to become more creative and focused on how we leverage private investment and the capital markets to ensure Europe is a global tech leader,” said Maydell. 

Repeating the budget waltz

Typically, the Parliament calls for a high budget, member states want that reduced significantly and the European Commission proposes a sum somewhere in between. During negotiations for Horizon Europe’s budget, the Parliament asked for €120 billion, with the member states looking for just over €80 billion. 

After months-long intense discussions, they settled on €95.5 billion for Horizon Europe, which includes €5.4 billion from the EU’s recovery fund and a further €4.5 billion mostly collected from competition fines imposed by Brussels. It’s unlikely the EU will have another recovery fund to complement its next gigantic seven-year budget, which calls into question where the Commission could find extra funding for research.

This time around, the Commission’s thinking is hard to judge. Its proposal for FP10 is not expected until spring 2025, and there’s little to go by. The new EU R&I commissioner Iliana Ivanova sat across from Ehler at the event on Tuesday and chose not to engage with the discussion on the budget.

Behind closed doors, the Commission is laying the foundations for the proposal. By the end of the month, it plans to set up a high-level expert group to guide the process. Many call it the new Lamy group, after Pascal Lamy who chaired the group that advised the Commission on Horizon Europe.

At the time, the group had similar ambitions to double EU’s spending on research – which implied a budget of up to €154 billion  And it added that any less than €120 billion “would break momentum and call into question the EU’s commitment to deliver on its political priorities.”

Backing her colleagues, MEP Lina Gálvez Muñoz acknowledges defending the EU’s R&I funding has been the Parliament’s role in past negotiations and is ready to ramp up the support. “We will continue to do so for FP10 as now more than ever we need to support fundamental research and strong and cooperative R&I systems to advance in the digital and green transitions to face the common challenges and achieve the open strategic autonomy of the EU,” Gálvez told Science|Business.

Calls for €200B budget widespread in EU’s R&I community

Ehler and Carvalho may be the first EU politicians to call for a doubled budget, but they are not alone in the R&I community. 

Just van den Hoek, policy adviser at Neth-ER, says the support from a leading Parliament figure in research policy is key to helping promote the idea of doubling the budget at the political level.

But it’s unlikely to make the battle for a bigger budget any easier. The EU’s ambitious priorities call for major investments, but there’s plenty of other business to take care of, such as the repayment of the post-COVID recovery fund. In the meantime, national governments around the bloc are tightening their wallets.

“It does indeed seem likely that the budget negotiations will be harder than ever,” says van den Hoek. “What may be in our favour is that these challenges do also strongly indicate the necessity for a stronger FP budget.”

Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe, also backs the call for a €200 billion budget but is similarly doubtful about it being approved. 

“It is very good that [MEPs] start making noises about this figure now because, I don't like what I'm going to say, but it is likely that we will not get it. But I hope that we get a figure as close as possible to €200 billion,” she said. 

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of League of European Research Universities (LERU), has been advocating for a €200 billion FP10 budget since the association launched its statement on the next programme in June.

But he says having the money there is not enough. It must be ring-fenced to ensure billions don’t get diverted to new Commission priorities, as has been routine with new initiatives such as the New European Bauhaus, the Chips Act and the Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP).

The way things stand now, “the research proposals are there but the money is not there,” says Deketelaere.

A Commission report published in May this year found that Horizon Europe needed an extra €34 billion to fund all high-quality proposals received in 2021 to 2022. In total, 71% of high-quality proposals did not get funding, just a slight improvement on the previous framework programme, Horizon 2020, under which 74% of high-quality proposals did not get backed.

But Deketelaere is doubtful the member states will put up the extra money for the next framework programme unless policymakers realise they can “forget about the EU autonomy agenda if you do not fund R&I in a much greater way.”

The Parliament, meanwhile, is more positive about the prospect of securing an ambitious budget. I can imagine that there will be some resistance amongst member states, but I hope that, in the end, everyone understands that this is the only path that will lead us in the right direction,” said MEP Carvalho.

Frontier research to the rescue

If current negotiations on next year’s Horizon Europe budget are anything to go by, then the idea of more than doubling Horizon Europe’s budget for FP10 looks ambitious. 

The Parliament’s budget committee voted through a draft position on Monday which includes an extra €140 million for basic, health and climate research, to be spent through Horizon Europe next year. The top-up adds to the €12.8 billion budget proposed by the Commission in July.

The member states have already called for €166 million to be cut from the €12.8 billion proposal, setting up what will inevitably be another round of difficult negotiations between the EU’s institutions. 

The Parliament, meanwhile, has a clear vision for the future. Speaking of foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges linked to climate change, food and strategic autonomy, Ehler said the groundwork on basic science has to begin now to reap the rewards in the coming decades. 

“If we do not have a science programme of €200 billion, we are not going to achieve [our aims],” he said.

Quoting richly from a 1939 essay by American academic Abraham Flexner titled ‘The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge’, Ehler made the point that research that may seem arbitrary today could end up unlocking key new technologies in the future.  

“If we are permanently sacrificing basic research for a practical approach – which although it might be attractive for citizens, political narratives and budget discussions – we are going to fail dramatically [in our aims],” he said. 

Maria Leptin, president of the European Research Council, the EU’s prestigious €16 billion basic research fund, welcomed Ehler’s comments. 

“I am very pleased to hear that members of the European Parliament will support an ambitious budget for the next EU research framework programme,” she told Science|Business. “Let’s also remember that research is the driving force for innovation and generates more prosperous societies.”

Editor’s note: this article was updated on 12 October to include comments by Maria da Graça Carvalho and Lina Gálvez Muñoz.

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