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Ministers rebel over Horizon 2020 budget

Research ministers break ranks with official council position

European Commission plans to boost the budget for Horizon 2020 to €80 billion have been given a shot in the arm as research ministers prepare to back the plans in contrast to finance ministers who oppose them, Research Europe can reveal.

The finance ministers’ position, which is that Horizon 2020’s budget should remain the same as Framework 7’s, is also the official position of EU member states. But now research ministers are backing the Commission and the European Parliament in pushing for a higher budget.

Ahead of the Competitiveness Council meeting on 21 February, Research Europe spoke to research representatives from five member states involved in the negotiations, from both eastern and western EU countries. The representatives had been meeting informally on 2 and 3 February in Copenhagen to discuss the Horizon 2020 proposal and its potential to boost European competitiveness.

A diplomat from Denmark, holder of the EU presidency, said that his country’s tactic to secure extra funding is not to mention money at such an early stage but to steer discussions around the content of Horizon 2020. “It is probably one of the subsequent presidencies that will be dealing with the budget part of the problem,” he said. “It is easier to discuss numbers when you know what you want to fund.”

A representative from another country, who also did not want to be named, said he and his colleagues need time to prepare a solid argument for negotiations with finance ministers. “Among the three large budgets, agriculture, structural funds and research, research and innovation will be the only growth areas in the next years,” he said. His country’s strategy for negotiating with finance ministers will be to say: “Hey, if you want to sell products in the next decade you need to spend money on research now.”

The consensus of opinion among the five member-state representatives was that the fight will not be easy and that finance ministers will play hardball. One national representative recalled a finance minister telling his research counterpart to “not be naïve in thinking that the proposed budget will survive the negotiations”. He said: “I think if we get €80 billion at the end of the day we will be very, very lucky.”

Horizon 2020’s budget is among the more contentious topics in the negotiations for the programme, which will start in 2014. The dispute partly centres on the fact that the Commission’s proposed next multi-annual financial framework, in which Horizon 2020 is embedded, is about €100 billion higher than the member states’ maximum proposal of 1 per cent of EU GDP.

The overall EU budget will not be discussed until late in the negotiations, and at the level of heads of state and government. Member states will not know what the final budget proposal for research is until the overall budget has been decided.

Also at issue is reimbursement of indirect costs for researchers participating in Horizon 2020 projects. Some countries, such as Belgium and Finland, want to increase the flat rate for indirect cost reimbursements, such as office space and travel, to 30 per cent of the direct project costs. Other countries, such as Denmark and France, want it to remain at the 20 per cent level of Framework 7. And a third batch of countries, including Germany, want to have the option of what is called ‘real costing’, where project partners calculate the real indirect costs, such as travel and office rents, and submit these for reimbursement.

A fourth group of member states, mainly from eastern Europe, have said that the indirect costing system must incorporate high costs for researchers from poorer countries. “Now you can have two people working on the same project, but the remuneration is different,” said a Czech diplomat. “We would like to see this put in more balance.”

The first formal talks on Horizon 2020 began during the Competitiveness Council meeting on 21 February, and the first progress report on the discussions will be released on 31 May.