Viewpoint: The research world lost a battle. Time to start winning the war

21 Jul 2020 | Viewpoint

The EU’s budget deal sacrificed Horizon Europe – but now the fight can move to the parliament and the wider public

Richard Hudson, Editor-in-chief at Science|Business. Photo: Science|Business.

We’re in the midst of a pandemic, for which the world is counting on science to deliver a vaccine. We’re alarmed by the advent of artificial intelligence, scary drones, online hacking. Only last year, protesters were chaining themselves to rails and breaking windows to demand climate action.

And yet, in the marathon summit of EU leaders that just ended, the biggest losers in the historic budget negotiations were science and technology – the only realistic source of solutions to these many worries. As Dan Nica, a Romanian member of the European Parliament co-leading research legislation put it, “When I saw the [budget] figures, I saw 22,500 fewer researchers supported, a loss of 400 patents for 110 inventions, and a loss of 220 clinical trials."

How did this car crash happen? The political answer is fairly simple. In the budget battle between rich and poor states, it is mainly the rich, northwestern countries that benefit most from Horizon Europe, the principal EU research and innovation programme. That made Horizon a budget line on which the rich countries were themselves vulnerable in negotiation with the poorer countries – and so research became the sacrificial lamb they put forward to make the grand deal happen.

The summit was, in essence, a high-stakes version of that classic game theory exercise, the “prisoners’ dilemma” – and the budget-conscious rich countries played it badly.

But Europe’s future will pay the price. Remember: the EU spends just 2.2 per cent of GDP on research, far short of its 3 per cent target and sadly behind the US (2.8 per cent), Japan (3.2 per cent) or Korea (4.3 per cent.)  The agreed €80.9 billion, seven-year Horizon Europe budget means that research funding in 2021 and 2022 will actually decline from the 2020 level; because of the way the European Commission budgets progressively in its seven-year cycles, this summit deal is a cut, pure and simple.  At the same time, an attempt to boost health funding also got squashed over the weekend; extra tech investment got biffed; and the research component of the commission’s vaunted Green Deal was stink-bombed.

So what is to be done? This humiliating defeat for universities, public labs, and industrial R&D (and for the commission itself) should teach a few lessons, and suggest some next steps. As a journalist who has reported on EU research programmes for 35 years, here is what I see needs doing:

  1. Move the battle to the parliament. As Nica’s comment suggests, there are plenty of MEPs who will not accept this deal as written. While they cannot and should not stop it – after all, the overall economic recovery is clearly urgent - they can soften the blow in many ways. Strings can be attached to agriculture and cohesion funding to make them contribute more towards research goals relevant to them. The MEPs can become much more public in their work, seriously campaigning for health and research funding among constituents. And university and corporate lobbying organisations must stop squabbling, and work together.
  2. Re-allocate the money. In 2019, the parliament, council and commission came to a “partial” agreement on how they would divide the Horizon money by sector and goal. Now that they know the total pie is a lot smaller than planned, they should reopen that deal. Clearly, some sectors like medical research are more urgent than others. Yes, this will upset all the micro-deals made earlier and could force a delay in the start of Horizon Europe. But would that be so bad? The current 2020 budget allocations would simply apply in the interim, and in the longer term this rare opportunity to re-set the political ground rules should not be missed.
  3. Enlist international partners for Horizon. For three years the commission has slow-marched negotiations for non-EU members to join Horizon Europe. The Swiss, Israelis, Canadians, Japanese and others have been agitating for months for Brussels to get serious at last. And then there is the UK, which still wants to be part of Horizon regardless of Brexit. For all of these countries, the EU eventually wanted their budgetary and scientific help; now it positively needs it. To get moving, the commission needs to schedule negotiations now, and greatly simplify its terms of participation. Despite years of effort, Horizon is still a legal thicket of off-putting terms and conditions; they should not any longer be allowed to stand in the way of international research collaboration.
  4. Re-engineer the winners and losers of Horizon. The fact that less than 5 per cent of Horizon money goes to east European countries is a political shocker, and denies those countries future tech jobs and growth. Yes, the immediate reason for this is that universities and companies in the richer countries are often scientifically or technically stronger than those in the poorer member states – but EU solidarity is about levelling countries up, not excluding them because they are down. Months of negotiations in 2019 produced a grudging acceptance that 3.3 per cent of the Horizon money would go to “widening” access to Horizon. This should be now be enlarged, in re-opened Horizon legislation. Of course, excellence as a criterion for awarding grants matters – but so does the political reality that governments getting no benefit from a programme also have no reason to support it in budget talks. If the university lobbies had acknowledged this fact earlier, the summit results might have been different.
  5. Rebalance the money between applied and fundamental research. This is heresy in the research world, but the budget of the European Research Council and related pure-science programmes should not be sacrosanct. The sobering economic and political fact is that corporate participation in EU research has been falling, as companies fret about Horizon contractual and payment terms. That should not be allowed to continue. The entire EU research enterprise began in 1984 as part of an explicit industrial strategy to help Europe compete with the US and Asia (at that time, Japan). Unless Horizon delivers marketable technologies, and the jobs that go with them, it will shrivel into political irrelevance. For starters, it is time for the ambitious new industry commissioner, Thierry Breton, to exert more muscle over Horizon priorities – in alliance with industry ministers generally.
  6. Get political. In the days preceding the summit, many researchers and research administrators organised laudable efforts to build budget support – but they were almost all aimed at others in the research community. This is absurd. The research world needs to prove its value to a general electorate: to businesses that buy tech ideas, to consumers that use tech products, to doctors and hospitals that need better equipment and medicines, to young climate activists who fear the end of the planet. What’s needed are not a few worthy “citizen science” projects (which reach mainly the converted) but seriously well-funded campaigns in schools, shops, community centres and the media to show people the value of science and technology.

This summit was an embarrassing defeat for research and innovation in Europe. But it can be reversed, with time and skill. In Washington, we have seen how US president Donald Trump has tried again and again to hack research funding – and each time, has been turned back by a pro-science Congress supported by an electorate that, though strange and fickle in many ways, mostly likes the idea of new gadgets and medicines. Europe can take that one lesson from the US.

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