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Funding crunch

Horizon 2020 suffers from broken promises

EU research funding faces a short-term crisis this year and next. A growing number of 2014 commitments are going unfulfilled, and total funding for Horizon 2020 in 2015 is set to fall substantially below planned levels.

The outlook for research and innovation programmes is uncertain, with little likelihood that the Council of Ministers will agree the steps necessary to address either the backlog or the shortfall in 3 weeks of re­conciliation talks now under way with the European Parliament.

The impasse led the European University Association to issue an unusually grim and forthright statement last week, warning of the impact on its members and on prospects for a long-term economic recovery.

The EUA and other lobby groups can hardly be accused of ‘crying wolf’ in this case. Au contraire, as the funding backlog has grown steadily in recent years, the organisations that aren’t getting paid have shown remarkable forbearance. The backlog arises because the EU never gets quite enough cash from member states to meet the commitments members have already agreed to. As Jacek Dominik, the budget commissioner, puts it, this is “against the principles of sound financial management”.

Now the backlog is causing major problems for organisations that have made funding commitments, in good faith, on the basis of grants that had been promised to them. At the end of 2014, total funds committed, but not paid, by the EU are expected to reach €26 billion. New projects under Horizon 2020 are receiving just 35 per cent of the required funding upfront, compared with 60 per cent back in Framework 7.

Furthermore, the Council is proposing a 2015 budget for Horizon 2020 that is 10 per cent below the level the Commission says is necessary to meet the programme’s costs. Scandalously, Erasmus students could be among those who don’t get paid.

The root cause of this, and of next year’s anticipated spending cuts, is the desire of many member states to face both ways. On the one hand, they are telling the public, and the EU, that investing in programmes such as Horizon 2020 is vital to building economic competitiveness. At the same time, they are telling their own publics that EU programmes are an extravagance and that, in a time of austerity, not a penny more can go to pay for them. As EuroScience, the grass-roots scientists’ group, puts it: “The credibility of the EU is at stake, not because of the Commission but because of member states not making good on their promises”.

Even if one accepts the premise of austerity—and not all of us do—its implementation, across the continent, is flawed. Policymakers have starved Europe of long-term investment, not just in research but also in public infrastructure such as roads and electricity grids, while failing to bring ‘normal’ spending, from their current accounts, under control.

The Parliament’s public mandate may be shaky, but in this case it is in the right. The Council needs to accept that the EU programmes it has already backed have to be paid for. The EU should never be in the situation of failing to pay its own bills. And rhetoric about the need to improve the knowledge base that underpins economic competitiveness should be matched by action.

This article also appeared in Research Europe