Frontier researchers to benefit from new Horizon 2020, despite looming budget cuts

Exchange of views in the European Parliament's ITRE Committee with ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. Brussels, November 2019 [Twitter/ERC Europe]

This article is part of our special report Frontier Research – A good return on investment?.

As member states are locked into negotiations over the next EU budget, research has become an easy target for cuts. Meanwhile, EU-funded scientists urge that frontier research is becoming more important than ever with new challenges ahead.

Before EU leaders met to discuss the EU’s long-term budget in Brussels last week, new European Council President, Charles Michel, said that the EU’s new climate ambitions mean the bloc needs to “invest massively in research.”

Under the EU’s New Green Deal, the European Commission’s objective is to dedicate at least 35% of the EU’s 2021-2027 Horizon Europe programme to climate research.

However, with budget talks stalling, certain policy areas might be confronted with lower funding after talks conclude early next year.

One notable example is Horizon Europe, the EU’s next research and innovation framework programme, whose figures are to be slightly reduced.

According to the draft budget proposal prepared by the Finnish Council Presidency, the financial envelope for the implementation for the Horizon Europe Programme for 2021-2027 will be €84 billion, of which €8.6 billion will be dedicated to research and innovation in food, agriculture, rural development and bio-economy.

The original proposal from June 2018, however, foresaw €10 billion allocated to the same research areas.

While the budget might be reduced, the figure still marks a significant increase compared to the predecessor programme Horizon 2020, which had approximately €3.8 billion for those research areas.

However, several experts flagged to EURACTIV that in order to reach the new Commission’s ambitions, they have to be matched with increased financial means.

In a session of the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee in November, Horizon Europe rapporteur Christian Ehler (EPP) warned fellow EU lawmakers of a looming up to €12 billion cut in Horizon’s budget as research is threatened with cuts as some member states lobby for EU spending to be reduced overall.

With the launch of the new Green Deal, many EU-funded scientists hope that the Commission will draw on more daring research concepts, in line with recent announcements made by Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, responsible for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.

“The EU’s investment in frontier research is an investment in our future, which is why it is so important that we reach an agreement on an ambitious Horizon Europe budget for the next multiannual budget,” Gabriel recently stated.

“More available research funding would also allow us to create more opportunities everywhere in the EU – excellence should not be a question of geography,” she added.

In November, however, Ehler also warned MEPs that the potential cuts threatens funding of the European Research Council (ERC), a public body funding scientific and technological frontier research, and which could see between €2-3 billion sliced from its proposed budget of €16.6 billion.

Asked by EURACTIV whether he expects the new European Commission to pay more attention to innovative research, outgoing ERC President, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, said that he hopes Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her team will acknowledge that the “ERC has raised Europe’s ambition, keeping top talent in Europe and attracting the brightest minds from further afield”.

“It is essential to leave enough room for creative minds to search for solutions we cannot yet imagine,” Bourguignon told MEPs in November, adding that such solutions could only be discovered through frontier research, which the ERC funds.

On 10 December, the ERC announced the 301 top scientists and scholars, winners of its latest grant competition – about 12% of the 2,453 submitted research proposals. The funding, worth  €600 million in total, is part of the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

On average, every researcher receives €2 million. The sponsors can use the money to set up their own research group for up to five years. As the ERC announced, the new grants will create around 2,000 jobs for post doctoral researchers, doctoral students and research assistants.

The scholarship holders, representing 37 different nationalities, conduct research at state or private universities and research institutions in 24 European countries, with most beneficiaries based in Germany, the UK, France and the Netherlands.

To fit in the current EU framework, the ERC’s new five research missions will also seek to take a green direction.

“We are working on five research missions – four of which will be very much linked to the green deal objectives, including healthy soils, healthy oceans and clean cities,” an EU official said upon the announcement of the new grant round.

In light of the budget-ambition gap, MEPs repeatedly urged the ERC to search for additional funding opportunities, suggesting that research institutions should work closer together with member states and the private sector in order to secure additional funding.

“You’re lobbying the European institutions in the traditional way, but shouldn’t the ERC be going out a little bit more?” Ehler asked.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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