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The worst of budgetary times

Austerity drive doesn’t augur well for Horizon 2020

The great advantage of the EU’s seven-year budget cycle is that it is supposed to lend itself to stability, enabling programme budgets to be sensibly planned and executed, without the endless political tinkering that comes with annual budget cycles.

The system has two great disadvantages, as we may be about to learn. First, the budget outline needs to be signed, sealed and delivered all at once, regardless of the state of Europe’s economies at the time. Second, much of the funding will end up going to those most practiced at winning grants, rather than to truly innovative austerity-busting programmes.

If an outline EU budget for 2014-20 is agreed within the next few months, as the Council of Ministers is promising, it will come at a moment of maximum austerity. The budget will be settled at a time when our political leaders are still claiming—in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary—that austerity can steer Europe’s economy back to health. The European Parliament, which has veto power over any council proposal, may try to resist a recklessly austere budget, but it remains to be seen whether it will find the resolve and unity to do so.

The EU budget proposal is heavily dominated by two elements that very much reflect Europe’s past: the Common Agricultural Policy and structural funds to aid the poorer parts of the union. Research and innovation, the third budget branch is the main instrument designed to confront the challenges of the future. Yet this, by far the smallest of the three budgets, also seems at times to be wedded to its own past.

For example, much of the research and innovation programme funds activities almost out of loyalty to previous Framework funding rounds. In addition to this, much Framework funding is earmarked for large ongoing projects such as the Galileo satellite navigation system or the Iter fusion facility. And, last but not least, there are concerns that the collaborative requirements of the programme continue to favour individuals and teams who have applied successfully in the past and thus ‘know the ropes’. The gender-balance statistics alone point towards a programme that is stacked in such applicants’ favour and is therefore risk averse.

Nonetheless, considerable strides have been made towards making Horizon 2020 everything that it ought to be. Applications are being simplified, and a range of mechanisms has evolved to distribute funding fairly. It is also fair to say that Framework 7, one of the largest public research programmes in the world, already supports a great deal of outstanding work.

This progress needs to be highlighted relentlessly if member states are to be convinced of Horizon 2020’s growth potential, and thus a satisfactory budget settlement. Despite the efforts of the European Commission and occasional public-relations successes, such as July’s EuroScience Open Forum meeting in Dublin, the programme so far has little public profile. This has to change if it is to pull its weight in forthcoming budget negotiations.