Viewpoint: Fundamental science must remain the bedrock of EU research

19 Nov 2019 | Viewpoint

Dropping research from the title of incoming R&D commissioner Mariya Gabriel is a worrying sign Brussels is pursuing commercialisation at the expense of basic science, says Svein Stølen, rector of Oslo University

Rector of Oslo University, Svein Stølen. (Photo credit: Khrono and Ketil Blom Haugstulen)

Unlike her predecessors, the next EU research chief Mariya Gabriel, due to take office on December 1, won’t have the words “research” or “science” in her job title. She will instead be commissioner for innovation and youth.

For Svein Stølen, rector of the university of Oslo, the omission is the latest harbinger of changing political winds in Brussels, and a “concerning signal” of a shift in emphasis away from basic science investment.

“To avoid having research in the commissioner’s title suggests a short-sighted focus,” Stølen said. “It’s dangerous for Europe not to continue to prize research, when you see how much [our global competitors] are investing in knowledge,” he told Science|Business.

Stølen worries the overriding political instinct is to chase commercial and economic opportunities at the expense of basic science. This tension between the EU’s commitment to fundamental science and investment in goal-oriented research is always simmering in Brussels.

The change in the title has brewed up a storm among scientists, with many calling for reinstatement of the word ‘research’. But while incoming Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, last week agreed to modify the title of another controversial brief on immigration,  she remains unbowed on Gabriel’s portfolio.

The hints of a change in emphasis from policymakers when it comes to funding research may be faint, but they are not confined to Brussels. “We see some of the same tendencies in Norwegian research,” Stølen said.

As one example, Stølen noted that Gabriel’s mission letter setting out her responsibilities over the five-year term, doesn’t mention the European Research Council, which it is proposed will have €13.1 billion to award for fundamental research from 2021 - 2027.

Looking at the overall €94.1 billion proposal for Horizon Europe, Stølen says the shift in the balance of funding “is of great concern”.

Money for basic science looks set to drop as a percentage of the programme. Pillar one, covering “excellent science”, stands to receive €25.8 billion, which is just over one quarter of the budget. But in the current Horizon 2020 programme, this area is getting €24.4 billion out of €77 billion, nearly one third overall.

“We still have to keep doing the groundbreaking research that will end up with disruptive changes. We have to keep looking further ahead,” Stølen said.

One new instrument, the European Innovation Council, will suck up almost €11 billion to support entrepreneurs launching start-ups and to help researchers commercialise their work.

This pot for innovation is an unknown beast for most universities, Stølen says. It is too early to know how the scheme will play out, but he said, “It’s something we’d eventually like to have a voice on.”

The final amount for basic science could end up being less than the proposed €25.8 billion, because of difficult negotiations between EU member states over the next long-term budget for the EU as a whole.

The UK, one of the most important contributors to EU coffers, is leaving. Meanwhile, countries including Germany want to put in less than the European Commission is asking for. On top of that, east European governments are unhappy the commission is proposing to move money away from farm subsidies and cohesion funds for poorer regions, in order to spend more on research.

Go global, but with strict terms

While he is concerned about the monies for basic science, the rector has no problem in opening the programme to geographically distant non-EU partners, such as Canada or South Korea, and to the UK after Brexit.

“We have to be outward looking. It’s correct to try and be inclusive,” he said.

It’s right that the EU sets strict conditions for cooperation though. “It’s extremely important to keep focus on what’s important in Europe - and that’s free, critical research. We have values – freedom of speech, space for critical professors, so we should never make any compromises with foreign research partners,” Stølen said.

Brexit or not, the UK needs to be in Horizon Europe, he added. “We would like to see the UK involved. It’s no secret at all that some of the best science is done in the UK. It’s really something that needs attention,” he said.

Doing research also naturally brings everyone closer, he says. “We really need to make sure Europe has collective power in the world,” said Stølen.

Norway’s full access to Horizon Europe is secured through its membership of the European Economic Area, which puts it inside the single market. The country isn’t a net recipient of EU research funding but is taking back “a growing fraction of the research budget”, Stølen said. “It has increased the quality of Norwegian research, no question. So, that’s the main motivation for us.”

“We are doing well, winning 11 starting grants from the European Research Council in the previous two years,” he said.  

As a non-EU country, Norway lacks an official say on EU policies and programmes. Stølen says his university exercises influence in other ways, such as via its membership of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

“We have engaged with the guild a lot to give our take on how the programme is structured,” he said.

For Norway, there are some obvious areas of research cooperation: maritime and shipping, climate, energy and health. And it is good to see funding for creative industries getting a bigger emphasis in Horizon Europe.

“We were very happy to see a new research cluster for culture and creative industries. We have also seen some of what we have suggested be reflected in the new missions,” Stølen said.

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