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Copernicus, Galileo and Iter face budget raid

Commission looks to large-scale projects to boost defence

Three flagship EU projects—Copernicus, Galileo and Iter—could lose €230 million from their budgets under an EU proposal to fund defence research.

The European Commission has suggested stripping money from Iter, the global nuclear fusion project, and Galileo and Copernicus, the European satellite navigation and Earth-observation programmes, to fund defence-related research and innovation in 2019 and 2020. Under the plans, proposed on 7 June, the Iter budget would be drained by €80m, Galileo by €135m and Copernicus by €15m.

The proposal seems likely to gain approval from the European Council and the European Parliament. Neither has responded yet, but on 13 June the Parliament backed the establishment of a dedicated defence research and innovation programme for 2021-27.

Copernicus, Galileo and Iter do not presently need the money targeted for transfer, according to the Commission. A spokeswoman said the reallocation “has been carefully designed in a way that none of the current projects will be delayed and the future delivery of the various programmes will not be affected”.

However, researchers worry that the money might not be returned. Tuomas Tala, head of the fusion research unit at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, sits on the governing board of Fusion for Energy, which provides Europe’s contribution to Iter. He says the project “for sure will suffer a lot” if funding is taken away.

Iter is a 35-nation effort to prove the feasibility of harnessing nuclear fusion. Originally it was intended to reach ‘first plasma’ in 2016, with construction costs amounting to €2.7 billion for Europe. But in 2010 that time frame was revised to 2025, and the cost estimates were raised to €6.6bn.

Bernard Bigot, Iter’s director-general, told Research Europe the reallocation was “normal procedure, as long as there is political will to stay with the overall financial commitment”. He suggests the Commission demonstrated that will on 14 June, when it published a document recommending approval of Iter’s latest budget.

The Commission document said the viability of fusion as an energy source “depends on the successful construction and operation of Iter”. It called on the Council and Parliament to approve an estimated total cost of Europe’s Iter contributions of €10.4bn between 2021 and 2035.

Volker Naulin, a plasma physicist at the Technical University of Denmark who also sits on the Fusion for Energy governing board, says that delays to Iter’s schedule have resulted in funds that have not been used as planned. He says he believes it is these that will be reallocated by the Commission.

“The Commission often transfers unused funds between initiatives; for example, funds from agriculture have been transferred to the fusion programme,” he says. “I would certainly hope that the money is re-established at a later time,” he adds, but says there is “always a problem” synchronising long-term projects with the multi-annual nature of EU budgets.

The Commission also acknowledged that Brexit, and the UK leaving the European Atomic Energy Community, “could have an indirect impact on the available Euratom financing to Iter”.

Naulin says that Brexit could be a greater threat to Iter than the transfer of funds. “The UK contribution to Iter is in question, and that cost might then have to be carried by the remaining member states,” he says.

Europe is contributing 45 per cent of Iter’s construction costs, of which 80 per cent comes from the EU and 20 per cent from host country France. In the operation phase, Europe will pay 34 per cent of the costs.

Jose Moreno, a professor of Earth physics at the University of Valencia in Spain, who leads a Copernicus project, says he’s “not surprised” by the suggestion to move the funds, as some technologies have both civil and military applications. But he acknowledges concern among scientists. “We hope this is not a major reorientation in the Copernicus programme,” he says.

This article also appeared in Research Europe