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Horizon Europe needs you

Image: B-D-S Piotr Marcinski, via Shutterstock

Governments won’t stand up for the programme unless researchers make them, says Daniel Spichtinger

In 2018 the European Commission’s proposed EU budget for 2021 to 2027 included €100 billion for the new research funding programme Horizon Europe. This is roughly 7.8 per cent of the overall EU budget, also known as the Multiannual Financial Framework. It compares with about €77bn given to the current Horizon 2020 programme, which started in 2014 and runs until the end of 2020. 

The financial proposal for Horizon Europe sailed through the European Parliament, which even wanted to increase its budget to €120bn. The casual observer would probably not have expected problems from the European Council either, given that even the Eurogroup has stressed the economic importance of investment in research and innovation.

But while the idea of giving EU money to researchers has few if any real political enemies, equally few member states consider it vital to their interests. In the realpolitik of budgetary negotiations, this could turn out to be a fatal flaw.

Generally, the EU-13 group of newer member states are net recipients of EU funding. They want an increased EU budget, as proposed by the European Commission. 

However, they have not profited much from Horizon 2020, which has mostly distributed funding based on the scientific excellence of proposals and not their location. Newer EU-13 will therefore opt to funnel EU money into regional and cohesion funds and agriculture, which are far easier for them to access. 

Budget clashes

A second group of member states, the net financial contributors, generally do well in Horizon 2020, since they house many prestigious research institutions. However, most of these countries are opposed to any increase in the overall EU budget, and several oppose cuts to existing regional and agricultural funding. 

This attitude was exemplified in a November speech by the Austrian Minister of Education, Science and Research, Iris Rauskala, at an annual EU research policy event in Vienna. The minister started by heaping praise on Horizon 2020 and assured the audience that Austria wanted an adequate budget for Horizon Europe. 

But, she added, Austria was unwilling either to increase its EU net contribution. The country’s policy, in other words, is to both have its cake and eat it. 

If Austria and other net payers, such as the Netherlands, are prepared to pay their fair share—necessitating an increase in the overall budget to offset for Brexit, among other things—then a properly funded Horizon Europe programme is possible. If they are not, the programme will see little or no increase compared with Horizon 2020. 

The cuts that are currently proposed would bring Horizon Europe’s budget to about €84bn. This may still seem impressive, but it is unequal to the programme’s ambitions, which include new concepts, such as missions, and a completely new funding line for innovation.

If the more severe budget cuts currently being contemplated come to pass, retaining these novelties would mean impoverishing other parts of the programme. 

Mobilising support

Several EU umbrella organ-isations, such as the League of European Research Universities and the European Universities Association, are doing an excellent job at defending the research community’s interests at the EU level. They have started to mobilise their members at institutional level. 

But local research communities at national and regional levels seem strangely apathetic about standing up for EU funding. They should learn from the farming community, which turns out on the streets of Brussels in full force as soon as any cuts to its precious subsidies are on the agenda. 

Has anyone seen any angry scientists in front of the Europa building, the Council’s Brussels headquarters? A researcher rebellion combined with high-level efforts from rectors and Nobel laureates may yet save Horizon Europe. It is therefore a good sign that the Initiative for Science in Europe, a platform for learned societies and research organisations, is preparing a campaign for Horizon Europe that could galvanise researchers on the ground.  

Gandhi is supposed to have said that the future depends on what we do in the present. Researchers need to realise that budget decisions taken at the European level now or in the near future will directly affect their chances of getting projects funded several years hence.

In other words, researchers need to act now so they don’t need to complain about oversubscription and low success rates later. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe