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University groups make urgent last-gasp plea for EU funding

Associations say research, innovation and education budgets must allow Europe to confront future crises

Fifteen associations representing more than 800 European universities have signed a joint statement to EU leaders, calling on them to allocate more of the bloc’s 2021-27 budget to research, education and innovation.

“At stake is our shared capacity to successfully tackle global challenges and become a frontrunner in addressing the green and digital transitions,” the group stressed in the joint statement published on 14 July.

The statement came as national leaders prepare to meet for a crunch summit on the budget on 17-18 July. Leaders have repeatedly failed to find consensus on the budget, which has now been complicated by the addition of a proposed €750 billion Covid-19 recovery fund, Next Generation EU.

A plan to cut €5bn from the proposed budget of the EU’s 2021-27 R&D programme, Horizon Europe, put forward by European Council president Charles Michel on 10 July, has provoked concern and anger among politicians and research leaders alike.

Michel suggested a total Horizon Europe budget of €89.4bn in 2018 prices, down from the €94.4bn proposed by the European Commission in May. This compares with about €77bn for the current EU R&D programme, Horizon 2020.

In their joint statement, the university associations said they are “disappointed and concerned” by the proposal.

“It is now important to reach an agreement in time so that the EU can move forward and deliver on its ambitious objectives in 2021,” the associations acknowledged. But they stressed: “It is also the member states’ duty to intensify efforts in research, innovation and education, so that our societies and economies can benefit.”

Speaking to Research Professional News, Amanda Crowfoot, secretary general of the European University Association, which signed the statement, said the cut was “massively disappointing and a backwards step” that could be “ultimately disastrous for Europe”.

Besides the role of knowledge in mitigating the harm caused by the pandemic, it will be generally important for the continent’s “long-term strategic resilience” and is in the interests of all EU citizens, Crowfoot said.

“This is just the crisis we’re facing now; Europe will face other problems and other crises over the coming seven years,” she said, referring to the length of the coming budget period.

Under the latest proposals, Horizon Europe would get €75.9bn from the normal EU budget—€5bn less than Michel proposed in February before the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated a rethink, and far below the €120bn sought by the European Parliament and research leaders.

This would be topped up with €13.5bn from Next Generation EU, unchanged from the Commission’s May proposal.

Michel retained his February proposal that the EU’s Erasmus+ mobility programme should have a budget of €21.2bn—€3.4bn less than the Commission wants and less than half the Parliament’s desired €45bn.

On the Erasmus+ budget, Crowfoot said it was “disappointing that it isn’t higher already”, but that the Horizon Europe cut was “particularly disappointing and particularly counterproductive”.

In addition to raising allocations for research, education and innovation, Crowfoot said recovery funds should not be channelled into narrow political priorities but instead should nourish the entire research system, including curiosity-driven work.

She said it is vital “a sufficient amount of it is freed up for frontier research and also for research training”, such as through the popular Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

In addition to raising funding and supporting basic research, the joint statement called for EU leaders to “support science in all areas…encourage and facilitate collaboration across disciplines [and] foster timely association” of non-EU countries to Horizon Europe.