Europe needs more money for research, here’s where to get it

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Visitors gather at EU booth showing the achievements of EU cooperation funded by Horizon 2020 at Clean Energy Technology Exhibition in Beijing, China, 08 June 2017. Four EU energy projects are presented at the EU booth including Esprit, Nobelgrid, Powerkite and Waveroller, also the model of the Solar Impulse plane on shown at booth. [EPA/WU HONG]

The lack of funding needed to achieve Europe’s widely advertised ambitions for global excellence in research and innovation should be addressed in discussing Horizon 2020’s successor. Understanding the challenge and where the money could realistically come from is key, writes Thomas Estermann.

Thomas Estermann is the director of governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association (EUA), representing more than 800 universities in 47 European countries. Combined, they are the single largest beneficiary of the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP9).

The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation is high on Europe’s success list. It has led to many discoveries and new knowledge that Europe can boast about. However, for many Horizon 2020 applicants, the chances of winning funds may seem more like those of a lottery than a competition.

Currently, almost 90% of all proposals and 75% of high-quality proposals evaluated as “excellent” are turned down due to insufficient funding. This is a serious problem for Europe in its quest for excellent research and innovation.

As the debate develops on how to design Horizon 2020’s successor, the obvious fix is more money to meet the Framework Programme’s ambitious objectives. However, with Brexit around the corner and many national governments tight on funds (or unwilling to channel more cash to Europe) it is unlikely that the overall European budget will be higher.

It is time to find a feasible solution and we must begin by understanding where the challenge lies, why Europe would benefit from spending more on research, and where that money could realistically come from.

It is clear that oversubscription and inefficiency are at the root of the problem. And the situation is very much linked to the difficulty in securing funding in individual countries. In recent years, as national governments have trimmed research budgets, EU funding programmes have become more attractive, leading to more applications, more competition, and ultimately low success rates.

As a result, EU funding is under pressure and national governments are losing money in the proposal process.

At the European University Association (EUA), we have calculated that, due to oversubscription, the total cost of preparing applications, successful or not, is equal to between 30% and 50% of the total funding that countries receive from Horizon 2020. This level of loss and inefficiency is so significant that the European Commission took note of the calculation in its mid-term review of the programme.

Meanwhile, EUA data on public funding to universities shows that the divide between higher education systems that increase funding for universities (including for research), and those that reduce it, is getting wider.

And we know that those national governments that invest more at home are more likely to win European funding, as they are better placed to compete. This creates a gap between those investing and those disinvesting that is not in the interest of Europe. It distorts the European Research Area and blocks the potential of Europe’s best and brightest researchers, who are found all across the continent.

As the crisis appears to be ending, the first solution is that national governments invest more in research and innovation. Second, a strategic reallocation within the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework is needed.

There are different ways to do this. The European Structural and Investment Funds, for instance, provide one of the biggest sources of money for infrastructure projects, but also cover research, development and innovation in Europe.

Some of these funds could be ring-fenced to finance the best research proposals that come from consortia that include countries that are less represented in the programme. They could be earmarked for proposals that have received a Seal of Excellence and could be distributed by either national authorities or at the European level.

Another scenario would be to shift parts of the structural funds directly to the next Framework Programme. Again, this funding could be channelled to top-rated proposals put forward by consortia with partners from countries that are generally less represented.

A final solution would look to the Common Agricultural Policy, another funding source that could contribute to funding more excellent proposals.

In these scenarios, the member states would reduce their costs related to the dismissal of excellent research proposals in the short term. In the medium to long term, they would benefit from the positive societal and economic outcomes of the funded research. And, finally, they would contribute to a simplified, more efficient and coherent European funding landscape, obtaining more for the money invested.

Research and innovation are the first steps in the pipeline of societal and economic growth and development. Providing more money to back this added value is thus a critical investment in Europe’s future.

When defining Europe’s next Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, no goal should be set that falls short of funding more excellent research proposals from all across Europe in a more efficient way. No matter which route we take, now is the time to think and decide on our future.