Go back

An ill wind

The coronavirus carries a warning against cutting research funding

As universities in regions of northern Italy remain closed for a second week in an attempt to combat the spread of coronavirus, other institutions across Europe and the world have stepped up preparations to tackle the disease. Senior staff have been tasked with putting plans in place to protect the health of staff and students. Meanwhile, universities in Australia, in particular, where the academic year only began last month, are braced for the financial fallout from travel bans affecting international students, whose places—and fee payments—will now be deferred.

With the number of countries affected by the disease, and the death toll, continuing to rise, the situation is now a global crisis, and the response needs to be global too. Research leaders were quick to recognise this in January, when more than 50 organisations, including the association of research funders and performers Science Europe and the molecular biology organisation EMBO, agreed that all research findings relevant to the spread of the virus should be made freely accessible, with journals passing papers to the World Health Organization as soon as they receive them.

This swift move to collaboration is both commendable and necessary. It also highlights the need for global cooperation in tackling society’s biggest problems. 

This should drive home the huge risk represented by the fact that the EU’s next flagship research programme—which, among other societal challenges, is intended to fund research into major health concerns—is being undermined by a nationalistic approach from some of the EU’s strongest nations. 

National leaders’ continued wrangling over the bloc’s next seven-year budget—with Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden insisting that budget contributions be capped at 1 per cent of gross national income—means the prospect of Horizon Europe being up and running by January 2021 is fading fast. At the same time, if the so-called ‘frugal four’ get their way, the R&D programme could end up with a budget way below the €83.5 billion in 2018 prices put forward by the European Comm- ission, hitting the programme’s scope. Meanwhile, the Erasmus+ mobility programme faces greater disruption than that which hit its predecessor programme last time out in 2014. 

The resistance to a higher budget is economically driven, but even viewed through this lens, the losses from an outbreak like the coronavirus are likely to dwarf investments in research that would put Europe in a better place to respond to future health crises. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has warned that if the coronavirus takes hold in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and North America, global growth could fall to 1.5 per cent in 2020, compared with a forecast of 2.9 per cent before the onset of the virus. This scenario—not the OECD’s worst case—would put Japan and Europe in recession, with the United States hovering just above the line.

It would be a shameful irony if, even as the EU’s nations continue to battle the spread of the disease, their national leaders fail to take the action now which would best help the bloc, and the world, prevent and combat health emergencies in the future. 

This article also appeared in Research Europe