In a ritual fight, member states want to cut next year’s proposed €12.3B budget and divert unused Horizon Europe funds away from research. Stakeholders say it’s time to ensure budget security
It’s that time of the year, and the Brussels research community is urging policymakers to ensure there is enough money for the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme in 2023.
As ever, the Commission has proposed a budget for Horizon Europe, the member states propose to lower it, and the Parliament has risen to defend it. For 2023, the Council wants to slash the proposed €12.3 billion budget by €663 million and to divert unused money from previous years to the EU’s new semiconductor partnership in the Chips Act.
For the research community, the first order of priority is ensuring the €663 million stays in next year’s funding pot. A lower budget means the already overstretched programme benefit ever fewer researchers and innovators, further reducing its low success rates. If the Council has its way, there would be a €122 million cut to the European Research Council (ERC), €33 million to Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), and €27 million to research infrastructures, among others.
The second priority for researchers is ensuring unspent money from 2020 and 2021 goes back into the research pot, instead of the EU’s new priorities, such as the Chips Act. While that is a welcome initiative, both the Parliament and researchers believe it shouldn’t take from the already tight budget for R&D. “Horizon should be safeguarded from these extra demands,” says Just van den Hoek, policy adviser at the Netherlands house for Education and Research. ‘’When extra demands are being made on Horizon, extra money is required.”
Slicing the funding pot this way, research stakeholders say, undermines strategic priorities that depend on R&I to deliver technology for the EU’s envisioned green and digital future. Member states consistently highlight the role of science and innovation in tackling societal challenges, but appear oblivious to that fact at the negotiating table. “There is a disconnect that we need to find a way to bridge,” says Mattias Björnmalm, deputy secretary general of the CESAER university association. “We cannot achieve the European Green Deal with what R&I we currently have today.”
Any cuts proposed by member states have to be approved by the Parliament, which promises to once again fiercely defend Horizon Europe funds. The two institutions are set to clash during the ongoing negotiations, with the next round of talks set for 12 October.
The Parliament demands reversal of the cuts proposed by the Council and wants unspent research money from 2020 and 2021 to go back into Horizon Europe next year. Of this, MEPs want €65 million to go to the ERC, €27 million to the MSCA programme, €12 million to the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and €41 million to the European Innovation Council.
As per the Commission’s proposal, unspent money would go to fund the Chips Act, a policy priority the Commission added to the mix after the seven-year budgets were set and which it is now scrambling to fund. The Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee’s ITRE has called this a ‘misuse’ of the financial regulation.
For research stakeholders, Parliament is obviously in the right. “What is very clear is that the Council undermines its own priorities, and its reasoning is not solid,” says van den Hoek.
Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), says the fault lies in the design of the research programmes, which makes them more susceptible to cuts than other EU funds.
“We are always the victim because the R&I budget is not ring fenced as are the other big budgets in agriculture and cohesion. Since these ring fenced budgets are untouchable for cuts, cuts always end up in the R&I budget, the next big budget next to agriculture and cohesion,” says Deketelaere. “So we have to make the R&I untouchable, once approved in the [next seven-year EU budget].”
Björnmalm believes that in addition to ensuring security through legislation, research organisations should find new ways to communicate why a stable and high budget for R&I is vital to the EU’s future. There have been consistent efforts over the past few years, but “we’re obviously not getting the right messages across to the right extent and to the right people at the right times,” says Björnmalm. The right people include finance ministers, who propose the Council’s budget lines, which consistently undermine R&I.
van den Hoek is looking to the mid-term evaluation of Horizon Europe, due in 2024, to raise the issue. “With regard to the next [seven-year EU budget], we need to really think how to increase budget security. We need to use the upcoming consultation on the interim evaluation of the programme to think about how this can be avoided in the future,” he told Science|Business.