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ERC president warns of shrinking funding for basic research

Image: Herman Van Rompuy [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Leptin wants billions more for European Research Council amid “huge” demand and declining national investment

The head of the European Research Council has warned of a worsening scarcity of funding for basic research, and called for her budget to double to meet demand.

The ERC has a budget of around €2 billion a year, but it has struggled with low success rates for some of its most prestigious grants in recent times. The council selects individual researchers for support purely on the excellence of their proposals in an age when many national funders increasingly direct work to particular topics.

“There’s huge demand for the type of funding that the ERC provides, and which is actually getting rarer in many national funding schemes,” ERC head Maria Leptin (pictured) said at an event in Brussels on 19 May.

“Most importantly I see the difficulty for what we call the ‘ivory tower’ topics to get good funding anywhere. Medical, life sciences, they have an easy time getting money and engineering and physics too, but the humanities and social sciences much less so.”

‘We need more’

Leptin said she thinks the EU funding for basic research and in particular the ERC is not sufficient, insisting: “We need more.”

She pointed to a 2003 report calling for the creation of the ERC that said it should receive €2 billion a year, at a time when only 14 of the current EU member states and the United Kingdom were contributing.

“We’re at €2bn now, and we have 13 more member states than we had at the time, so there must be room for going up,” she insisted.

“Double the budget, we would easily have enough good proposals. If we go by the grants that we have to reject, then Europe would certainly be helped if those could also be funded.”

‘Politicians don’t understand’

Leptin warned that “many politicians don’t understand” the need to fund basic research in order to have knowledge to draw on to combat current and future crises.

A similar warning came from one politician who spoke before Leptin at the event in Leiden to mark the 20th anniversary of the League of European Research Universities.

MEP Christian Ehler, who has helped to shape the past three EU R&D programmes within which the ERC sits, said: “It is no longer undisputed that what had been laid as a foundation at the time of the enlightenment—that society spent money for research and innovation—it’s no longer the case.”

He added: “If you look to the [EU] research programmes, they have become more and more political, there is more and more of an agenda, and less and less there is a younger generation with…the conviction that an added value for society is to spend money on [research].”