MEPs to battle ‘dangerous’ cuts to EU research budget

Brendan O’Malley

The European Parliament is set for a summer-long battle to try to restore deep cuts to proposed spending on research, innovation and the European Green Deal, after European Union leaders cut into spending on key programmes to agree the next seven-year EU budget and fund a historic €750 billion (US$871 billion) post-COVID-19 recovery programme, dubbed ‘Next Generation EU’.

The European Parliament, meeting on 23 July, adopted a resolution declaring that it does not accept the budget deal agreed by EU leaders on 21 July and warns that the cuts to the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) “go against the EU’s objectives” and “that the proposed cuts to health and research programmes are dangerous in the context of a global pandemic”.

It also said that the proposed cuts to education, digital transformation and innovation “jeopardise the future of the next generation of Europeans”.

Under the 21 July deal, Horizon Europe is allocated €13.5 billion less than was last proposed by the European Commission, with €5 billion cut from the programme allocation in the MFF and €8.5 billion removed to pay towards the Next Generation EU recovery programme.

European Parliament President David Sassoli has specifically cited research and the Erasmus+ programme in calls to negotiate a better deal.

The resolution was immediately welcomed by the European University Association (EUA), which said the outcome of the budget negotiations “reveals a failure to invest strategically in the future”.

The EUA reported that the budget negotiations had mostly focused on the Next Generation EU recovery plan, with member states fighting over the overall size of the package, the distribution of funds between loans and grants, and its governance, including the issue of the respect of rule of law by beneficiary countries.

It said Horizon Europe had been a victim of the negotiations, accusing EU leaders of treating it like a “reserve fund” to cut from in order to grant higher rebates to some countries.

“Horizon Europe is far from the ambitious increase indispensable to address pre-COVID-19 needs, let alone the current situation. This is two-thirds of the amount deemed necessary by the European Parliament and EUA,” the EUA said.

Horizon Europe, under the budget agreed by EU leaders, will receive €80.9 billion, compared to the European Commission’s original proposal of €94.4 billion, which was already substantially lower than the €120 billion sought by the EUA and 14 other university associations.

The EUA said the disappointment was “all the more bitter” for the fact that several member states – including those that fought for a smaller budget – had reiterated the importance of research and innovation (R&I) investment and budget “modernisation”.

But the final deal “reflects more short-term interest than the greater need for strategic, long-term resilience at the level of the continent”.

“EUA equally regrets the missed opportunity to scale up education funding, with a total amount for Erasmus+ limited to €21.208 billion, far from the original commission proposal,” which was €30 billion.

After the budget agreement, the EUA had urged MEPs to defend future-oriented investments to give the means to the European Union to tackle the unprecedented challenges effectively and successfully.

“Funding for Erasmus+ needs to be boosted and the budget allocation to Horizon Europe re-evaluated to protect funding to fundamental, curiosity-driven research, which is core to our long-term success,” the EUA said.

In its resolution, the European Parliament deplored the cuts made to future-oriented programmes, saying it considers that they will “undermine the foundations of a sustainable and resilient recovery”.

The European Green Deal, the plan proposed before the pandemic to achieve climate neutrality across the European Union by 2050, will form the backbone of the EU’s recovery strategy. It will include renewable energy projects, especially wind, solar and kick-starting a clean hydrogen economy in Europe.

There will also be a bid to create a stronger presence in strategic sectors, including artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, supercomputing and cloud computing.

Building a real data economy supported by the development of a digital education agenda promoting digital skills for all EU citizens will also play an important part in the recovery.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 23 July hailed the agreement on Next Generation EU as a unique recovery tool that would boost the Single Market and the European Green Deal and would invest in digitisation, modernisation and resilience.

“I believe Next Generation EU can be one of the largest stimuli for investment and reforms anywhere in the world – investing in roll-out 5G, grid infrastructure, in AI [artificial intelligence] and industrial digitisation, in renewables, sustainable transport, energy efficient buildings,” she said. “This is how we fight climate change and modernise.”

However, she conceded that “there are regrettable and painful decisions on many programmes, which have crucial added value”.

By contrast, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) described the deal as a “huge disappointment”.

LERU Secretary-General Professor Kurt Deketelaere said this was “not a ‘historical’ day for the EU, as claimed by the European Council, at least as far as regards research, innovation and health: the only historical element LERU sees, is that, indeed, the proposed budgets for research, innovation and health have been butchered in an unprecedented way”.

“This is unthinkable: seemingly everything was ‘open for deletion’ as long as it made a deal possible, even the R&I and health budgets,” he said.

He said the deal was in complete contradiction with the priorities in research, innovation and health of the German EU presidency, “and so one can wonder with how much credibility Germany can still realise that agenda”.

For LERU, “a significant increase of the European Research Council and Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions budgets is absolutely key; all the rest is up for negotiation,” he said.

‘Humiliating defeat for universities’

Richard L Hudson, editor-in-chief of Science|Business, said the budget deal was a “humiliating defeat” for universities, public labs and industrial R&D, with science and technology the biggest losers.

Writing in Science|Business, he said the political decision had been made possible because in the budget battle between rich and poor states, it is mainly the rich, Northwestern countries that benefit most from Horizon Europe, the principal EU research and innovation programme.

“That made Horizon a budget line on which the rich countries were themselves vulnerable in negotiation with the poorer countries – and so research became the sacrificial lamb they put forward to make the grand deal happen.”

But he suggested the effects on research could be softened or even reversed in time by a combination of reallocating spending within Horizon Europe; enlisting international partners who are queuing up to join, such as the Swiss, Israelis, Canadians, Japanese and post-Brexit United Kingdom; and finding ways to encourage more corporate participation, even if this meant that the budget of the European Research Council and related pure-science programmes should not be sacrosanct.

But he also said researchers and research administrators needed to get political and build support among the general electorate by organising seriously well-funded campaigns in schools, shops, community centres and the media to show people the value of science and technology.

“In Washington, we have seen how US President Donald Trump has tried again and again to hack research funding – and each time has been turned back by a pro-science Congress supported by an electorate that, though strange and fickle in many ways, mostly likes the idea of new gadgets and medicines. Europe can take that one lesson from the US.”