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R&D funding needs flexibility to respond to crises, MEPs say

Message comes as EU plans state aid provisions to facilitate response to Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 respiratory disease pandemic shows the need for rapid, reactive EU research funds, MEPs from the centre-left Socialists and Democrats political group have said.

“We insist on the need to be able to quickly activate fundamental instruments and increased funding for research and innovation in a coordinated manner,” S&D vice-president Ismail Ertug said on 18 March.

Before the pandemic broke out, the EU was “unable to prepare for the new virus”, he said. “The hope is that once out of this emergency, we can learn the lesson of anticipation of possible, perhaps probable, future epidemics.”

EU institutions agreed last year that the funding calls for the bloc’s 2021-27 R&D programme, Horizon Europe, must have “sufficient flexibility to respond rapidly to new and emerging challenges, unexpected opportunities and crises”.

The S&D coordinator for Horizon Europe, MEP Dan Nica, said there would come a time to look at the “current shortcomings and new problems” in EU R&D.

“A sound and long-term funding of European research can help scientific progress and accelerate medical research,” he said, citing topical areas such as vaccines, reproducibility, data-sharing, privacy and patient enrolment in clinical trials.

The group’s call for more agile funding came as the European Commission prepared a temporary relaxation of EU rules for state aid in response to Covid-19, to permit easier allocation of government grants, loans and subsidised interest rates for companies struggling as a result of the outbreak or with the potential to help combat it.

Current EU rules allow government support for R&D under the General Block Exemption Regulation, but governments must seek approval for funding that falls outside narrow categories.

Among various national responses to the pandemic, the Spanish government announced on 17 March that it was allocating almost €30 million in funding for Covid-19 research, most of which will go to researchers at the Carlos III Health Institute, Spain’s main public research body.

The Research Executive Agency, which administers some EU R&D funding, announced that it has extended call deadlines and is evaluating project proposals and conducting other business remotely. Researchers have been told to inform the agency if their project has been affected by Covid-19.

The body European Cooperation in Science and Technology, which allocates EU funding for research networks, has extended its open call from April to October, to give researchers time to develop proposals.