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Budget clouds darken

Iter letter signals tough EU funding round to come

It was always unlikely that member states would be wildly keen on the European Commission’s suggestion that they find a fresh source, outside the Euratom budget, for the billions of euros of cost overruns on the Iter fusion research project. So we’re not surprised at the thrust of the letter, which eight research ministers have sent the Commission warning that the idea is unacceptable (see News, page 1, via link below). More surprising, perhaps, is that ministers chose to go public with such searing criticism of non-Euratom funding, one even describing the proposal as “absurd”.

But this is not just about fiscal rectitude, it is about visible fiscal rectitude. The research ministers are not just taking a clear stand against new and additional funding sources; they want to be seen to be doing so. It is in this climate of self-flagellation, unfortunately, that the Commission will unveil detailed plans for its next seven-year research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, on 30 November.

The EU budget process, which sets spending on a seven-year cycle, is prolonged, by national standards, but this is intended to lend stability to the process. The seven-year budgets are not inviolable; at the weekend, the EU reached a deal to increase its 2012 spending by just under two per cent—€20 billion less than was agreed in 2006 when the budget for 2007‑13 was, allegedly, ‘set’.

But the present situation shows how the seven-year cycle can have unexpected repercussions. The 2014-20 budget is going to be brought together at the most austere time possible, when nations are thinking only of the need to cut spending, and before either economic growth or inflation have time to erode debt and allow the case for public investment in research, or indeed anything else, to emerge.

It is in this climate that Máire Geoghegan-Quinn’s research directorate must make the case for Horizon 2020. We already know the directorate’s proposal will contain some good ideas, including simplification of procedures for participants, more support for the European Research Council, and the orientation of other research programmes to address grand challenges. However the danger remains that the thrust of the proposal may not be selective enough for the current budget climate. The €80-billion-proposal will have to make room for pet projects such as the European Institute for Innovation and Technology, and the Iter letter suggests that space may have to be found in it not just for Iter but also for Galileo and other cash-strapped megaprojects. At the same time, the ‘backloading’ on the current, €53-billion-Framework 7 programme means that research could end up with little, if any, real increase in support during Horizon 2020.

The Commission will try to wrestle more money out of the member states, as will the Parliament, which now has extensive budgetary powers. But neither arm really has the muscle to do this, if last weekend’s austere 2012 budget deal is anything to go by—the member states mean to show their own electorates that they can stand up to both.

All the signs are that the next budget round will be tighter than could have been envisaged even a few months ago. That points to some far tougher research spending choices for the Commission than ever before.