Scientist-MEP: 'If necessary, divert cash from agriculture to research'

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Portuguese MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho (European People's Party) is calling for more structural funds to be used for research in a new report to be discussed at a Parliamentary workshop later this month. She is a firm believer that Europe needs to spend more on science and research to emerge from its current economic malaise.

A former Portuguese minister of science who sits on the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee, Maria da Graça Carvalho worked as principal advisor to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on science and research issues from 2006 to 2009. She is a professor at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon and she has a 30 years of research experience in the areas of energy, environment and climate change. She spoke to EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming in her offices in the Parliament.

The ITER committee has demanded €100 billion to be set aside for the EU's 'Horizon 2020' research programme for 2014-2020. Meanwhile, the European Commission proposal is for €80 billion. Where do you expect this money to come from?

The €100 billion could come from an overall increase in the budget. But we believe that it should come, no matter where from, and that if necessary from other funds.

The increase has been endorsed by the majority of political groups who have also accepted that research has the most EU added value and that such spending is the most effective way of coming out of the crisis.

Since there is no planned additional increase in the budget, where else could the additional funds come from? Would the increase need to be matched by a reduction elsewhere?

We will have to decrease the [research] budget from other policy areas, probably the agriculture and cohesion funds would have to diminish a bit for research. However there is a case for helping this process, for example by negotiating ways in which the research budget could be used to assist in agricultural and biological research projects as a way of compensating these things.

Your paper suggests that – in addition to the larger research budget – more effort should be made to spend structural funds on research issues, how do you propose that this should be done?

By spending structural funds on infrastructure for training projects and networks to create clusters and prepare the regions to be competitive for Horizon 2020. Our idea is to [create incentives for] the use of the structural funds for research and innovation.

Since the structural funds will have a budget of around €350 billion, if up to 30% were used for research – which is currently allowed – then that is more than the entire Horizon 2020 budget that will be available.

Why do you need to create incentives for the use of structural funds for research infrastructure?

Currently countries are allowed to do this but they choose not to. Some do and some do not use a significant amount. We should therefore find incentives. These could take the form of being an indicative value attributed by the Commission in its negotiations with member states for use of the structural funds. Horizon 2020 will be [based] on excellence, but I am also sure that if they [member states] spend 30% of their funds on research infrastructure, then they will be much better positioned to take advantage of Horizon 2020.

What are you aiming to achieve with this report?

The purpose of the report on the use of structural funds is purely to be used internally for DG Research and MEPs and it covers what we have been discussing and what I advise is that more synergies should be created between the different funding mechanisms to create the capacity before the competence, which can help member states in their preparation for subsequent Horizon 2020 proposals.

Why do some countries not want to spend their money on research?

It is much easier for them to spend money on highways. Currently the framework programme is very complex and the system is such that auditing papers and actually getting the money out is complicated and, if you then fail to use the money within a limited amount of time, then it is lost forever. Sometimes member states are interested in setting up projects and then they cannot be bothered, they would rather find easier ways of spending the structural funds.

What would you say to those who argue that this is a way of holding back money for the less wealthy, newer member states from Eastern Europe? The best research infrastructure is already in the richer member states of Western Europe so this is an example of the 'cohesion vs. excellence' debate?

They are afraid that this is compensation for the richer states because they will not get access to the framework programme. But in Portugal I personally negotiated a large research project based on structural funds, and they have increased the number of doctorates and access to research as a result.

There is no reason why countries such as Romania and Bulgaria should not similarly be able to set up such projects, and gain similar access to the framework programme as a result. The other great benefit of the use of structural funds is that member states can team together to collaborate on joint projects, as Portugal has done with Spain in the past.

Your proposal of getting more funds for Horizon 2020 is going to come against those member states that are seeking a reduction of the overall budget proposal. Do you really have any prospects of success?

There are five member states who want to reduce the budget. But those countries that want to reduce the budget are the ones who gain most from the research budget, so we will be able to engage with them on that basis.

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