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Research leaders vow to fight to the last for bigger EU R&D budget

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

Pledges come as European universities report how they have been hit by Covid-19

Research leaders have said they will work up until the last moment to get the best possible deal for R&D in the 2021-27 EU budget, as negotiators in the Council of the EU, European Parliament and European Commission try to overcome their differences on it.

“We need to focus on the coming weeks,” Michael Murphy, president of the European University Association, said on 22 September at the EUA Funding Forum event. “It’s clear to me that every institution in Europe must call, text their MEP and put the pressure on to ensure the [flexibility on the budget] will be exploited,” he said.

The Council and Parliament remain at odds over the budgets for items including the Horizon Europe R&D programme, which the Council says should get €80.9 billion rather than the €120bn sought by the Parliament and research organisations.

Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, said he “absolutely” believes in petitioning up until the final hour of the negotiations. He urged research leaders to continue pressing their governments and be vocal in the media, saying: “That’s what we’ve done so far in Netherlands, and that doesn’t stop today.”

Following the session, he wrote on Twitter that the Dutch parliament had that day passed a motion calling on the country’s government to aim for a higher Horizon Europe budget. The Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said earlier this month he would only be happy with this if the overall 2021-27 EU budget remains within the limit agreed by the Council in July.

“We should make sure that we’re not getting a cut…as it is now,” MEP Christian Ehler, one of two Parliament leads on the Horizon Europe legislation, said in the EUA session. But the news website Science Business reported that French MEP Pierre Larrouturou said on the same day that he thought an uplift for Horizon Europe would only be possible if the Council agreed to new EU taxes to raise the bloc’s overall resources.

At the EUA forum, EU R&D commissioner Mariya Gabriel expressed “frustration” with the “high level of oversubscription” to EU programmes. Meanwhile, the top Commission R&D official Jean-Eric Paquet said at the Commission Research and Innovation Days conference the same day that EU leaders had “struggled a little bit to be completely consistent” with their expressed views on the importance of R&D when they adopted their stance on the Horizon Europe budget.

In response to an EUA survey of 28 national rectors’ conferences, seven conferences reported that universities’ access to EU funding had been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Only four conferences said they expected EU funding for universities to increase in 2021-23, while eight said they expected it to be stable, five expected a fall and 11 said they did not know.

The survey found that university income from services, such as rent and commercial income, has been the income source most commonly hit by the pandemic so far, with 21 rectors’ conferences reporting an impact. The next most commonly affected areas were contractual research income, reported by 16 conferences, and tuition fees from international students, which were reported by 12 conferences.

“Funding is an absolute necessity for this period if we don’t want to repeat mistakes of the 2008 financial crisis,” Thomas Estermann, director of governance at the EUA and lead author of the survey, told Research Professional News.

“What is more and more being confirmed is that there’s a huge uncertainty out there—that’s one of the biggest challenges,” he said.

Almost all respondents—25 of 28 rectors’ conferences—said institutions would be making new investments in digital infrastructure following the pandemic, with 16 conferences expecting investments in staff training.