EU Parliament, Scientists Press Governments To Boost Research Funding

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As governments prepare to debate the European Union’s overall budget for 2014-2020, European Parliament members and top scientists today warned that any cuts to research and innovation funding will risk the loss of a generation of scientists just when Europe needs them most.

Europe used to share research leadership with the United States but lost it in the last decade, European Parliament (EP) Industry, Research and Committee (ITRE) Chair Amalia Sartori (European People’s Party, Italy) said at a 15 November press conference. The EP worries that the Council of Ministers, faced with calls for deep spending cuts to deal with the financial crisis, will approve across-the-board reductions, Sartori said. Administrations should stick to the position that resources for research must be safeguarded because that’s where Europe’s future, and its economic recovery, lie, she said.

A properly funded research and innovation program is essential if Europe is to compete globally and face enormous challenges such as climate change and an ageing population, said Maria Da Graça Cavalho (EPP, Portugal), who is preparing the EP position on Horizon 2020. The budget must promote research at the European, as opposed to national, level, she said.

On 30 November 2011, the European Commission (EC) proposed Horizon 2020, an 80-billion-euro programme for investment in research and innovation (press release here). The EC and EP strongly support the plan, which will be voted on in ITRE on 28 November and in plenary in 2013, Sartori said.

But that amount is the minimum lawmakers will accept because it does not represent a real increase in value compared with the current research budget, Cavalho said. The EP wants around €100 billion in research and innovation funding, Sartori said. In research, “we only get out what we put in,” Cavalho added. Lawmakers hope EU member states remember that when they debate research funding for the next seven-year period, she said. Council President Herman Van Rompuy reportedly called Thursday for a total budget proposal that is €75 billion less than the Commission’s initial recommendation.

Scientists Must “Fight On”

Research and innovation is under threat because EU governments are opting to pay less to their overall budgets, causing an uneven hit to research, said European Research Council President Helga Nowotny. Moreover, researchers “do not have a lobby,” she said. The EC is backing the research budget with all the means at its disposal but the scientific community must also speak up, she said.

“One billion less for Horizon 2020 means up to 600 principal investigators less, 240 collaborative projects less and 800 participations or 4,000 SMEs [small and mid-size enterprises] participations less,” she said.

Europe has just succeeded in reversing its “brain drain” to other countries as scientists see the continent as a good place to be, said Initiative for Science in Europe President Maria Leptin, who also heads the European Molecular Biology Organisation. There is now a need for more scientists, not just for academia, but also for industry, she said.

If funding becomes uncertain, talented, young researchers will “drift off to other areas,” said Sir Tim Hunt, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine. Hunt and other leading scientists met Thursday with EP President Martin Schulz, Van Rompuy and EC President José Manuel Barroso to urge them to secure the future budget for Horizon 2020.

The scientific community handed EU leaders a letter, signed by 44 Nobel Laureates and others, that asked: “When the deal for Europe’s future budget is announced, what will be the role of science in Europe’s future?” There is also a public petition, “No cuts on research,” with over 131,000 signatures.

European scientists “have to fight on” because Europe’s scientific community has become a “beacon” that draws young researchers, said Jules Hoffmann, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. That community is “pleading” with the EU not to abandon it in this time of progress and to make available at least the level of funding awarded for the current budget cycle, he said.

If the Council continues to push for a figure lower than the EC proposal, Parliament will have to decide whether to approve the 2014-2020 budget, Cavalho said. If they veto it, the EU will have to live with 2013 numbers as its annual budget for the next seven years, she said.

Dugie Standeford may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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