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MEPs join push for paid extensions to Marie Curie projects

Image: Images Money [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Efforts to support EU-funded researchers affected by Covid-19 delays ‘not enough’, say MEPs

Two MEPs have lent their support to researchers petitioning for paid extensions to EU research projects affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, calling on the European Commission to find the necessary funding.

A number of researchers funded by the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions scheme, which supports individual fellowships, training and mobility, have warned that their careers and personal lives are under severe pressure because they have not been offered funded extensions, even though their projects have been disrupted by Covid-19.

“Over the course of this summer, young academics and researchers repeatedly approached us. Many see their futures threatened by a failure to extend the funding for their MSCA fellowships,” MEPs Sven Simon and Christian Doleschal wrote in a 28 October letter to EU R&D Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, seen by Research Professional News.

Action taken by the Commission “is now exhausted and has not produced satisfactory results for all recipients” they said, adding that returns to lockdown “in many member states will likely only worsen this problem”.

The MEPs called on Gabriel to “explore ways to re-designate unused funding from your directorate-general or other [departments], or seek alternative forms of funding” for the affected researchers. They added that at a meeting on 27 October, they “were encouraged by the commitment of [her] staff to provide solutions on the budgetary and regulatory problems within the next 14 days”.

The Commission declined to comment on the staff commitments referred to, instead reiterating its previously expressed stance that measures already adopted, including pushing back deadlines and allowing researchers to work part time, “have been appropriate and effective in addressing the difficulties encountered by fellows, as well as [being] largely accepted by the MSCA community”.

It said the issue “relates to very few cases, where fellows do not accept anything other than paid extensions”. The Commission added that paid extensions are legally prohibited, pushing back against a suggestion from Simon and Doleschal that it should “enact exceptional circumstances clauses” for the researchers.

The letter came amid an ongoing inquiry by the European Ombudsman’s office, which opened a file on two cases regarding funding for MSCA fellows on 2 October. The fellows involved, Nathalie Conrad and Antonia Weberling, told Research Professional News they welcomed the MEPs’ support.

“This statement by MEPs is important because it exposes the European Commission’s failure to address the situation of researchers whose work was affected by the Covid-19 outbreak adequately,” said Conrad.

In a 30 October open letter to the Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Conrad and Weberling wrote that they are working as hard as they can to catch up on lost time on their projects researching cardiovascular disease—“the number-one cause of death globally”—but face further delays.

The ombudsman asked the Commission to respond by 15 November to questions such as whether it replied directly to researchers’ requests for emergency funding, and how it reminded researchers that institutional funding could be reallocated to support them.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe