Parliament eyes EU regional money to boost research

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The European Parliament is considering plans that would push EU countries to spend a third of their regional funds on research infrastructure – increasing the budget on science and innovation beyond that reserved in the upcoming research programme for 2014-2020.

The Parliament has already squared up for a fight with the European Commission over the research budget in the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF). The dispute centres on legislators' demands that €100 billion be set aside for Horizon 2020, the EU's 8th framework programme for research that will run from 2014 to 2020.

A report adopted by the Parliament plenary asks for €20 billion more to be set aside for research. But the Commission’s own proposal of €80 billion would itself represent one of the largest sectoral budget increases if ultimately approved.

A new report scheduled to be discussed later this month in the Parliament will push for radical new measures to unlock a third of the structural funds for research infrastructure, which would give access to another €120 billion for research under the EU's next long term budget for 2014-2020.

Structural funds rarely used for research

This is not new since in theory European regional funding – or structural funds in EU jargon – have always been available for research infrastructure projects.

In practice, however, they are rarely used for this purpose because bureaucratic complications associated with setting up research projects encourage member states to find more straightforward uses for them, such as motorways.

A report produced by Portuguese MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho (European People's Party) outlines the synergy between the EU's research framework programme and the structural funds and makes radical new proposals to encourage member states to divert structural funds for research.

These include giving incentives for nations who do so, a move which could make it easier for them to subsequently  access the 'Horizon 2020' funding.

Carvalho, a former Portuguese science minister who previously worked in the cabinet of Commission President José Manuel Barroso, is strongly tipped to be appointed as the lead rapporteur for the 'Horizon 2020' proposal in Parliament. The MEP who will be appointed for the role is at least expected to emerge from one of Carvalho’s colleagues in the European People's Party, the leading political group in Parliament.

Proposal to ignite 'excellence vs. cohesion' debate

Her proposal therefore has a strong chance of finding its way into the Parliament’s official response to the Commission’s 'Horizon 2020' programme when it is issued later this month.

It will stoke controversy however, since Socialist MEPs and several representing eastern member states see any enforced diversion of the structural funds as a means of preserving the lion’s share of Horizon 2020 for wealthy European countries that can rely on the "excellence" of their existing research infrastructure.

Their worry is that deprived nations will end up being barred from a third of EU regional funding, which was initially intended to bridge the gap between rich and poor regions – the so-called "cohesion" objective.

If this was to happen, poorer Eastern European countries would be forced to spend structural funds on boosting their research infrastructure before they were eligible to apply for funds under 'Horizon 2020', they fear, claiming the EU is sacrificing "cohesion" in favour of "excellence".

In an interview with EURACTIV, Carvalho denied this was the case. She said that – having herself managed spending of structural funds projects on research in Portugal – that there was no question that the proposal damaged any country's potential to be eligible for funds under either programme.

“Horizon 2020 will be a ‘balanced’ programme,” the EU's Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan Quinn said in a speech to the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin on 20 October.

She explained: “This 'balance' extends to ensuring that Horizon 2020 helps excellence to parts of the Union where it does not currently exist. To achieve this, we are improving the synergies between Horizon 2020 and the Structural Funds.”

“We have, I think, found a rational division of labour between the two. Horizon 2020 will identify potential centres of excellence, clearly recognise them – give them a seal of approval, if you will – and offer them policy advice and support. The upgrading of infrastructure and equipment, on the other hand, will come under the remit of the Structural Funds,” the Commissioner concluded.

"I am in favour of the increased budget for the next funding programme, Horizon 2020, but I believe that the allocation of funds will need to be done in a more open, accessible and balanced manner,” said Romanian Socialist MEP Ioan Enciu.

“Moreover, regarding the proposals to increase the incentivisation for the use of the structural funds for research, I consider that the current levels are the correct ones and that they should not be changed.”

“The structural funds have the main target of balancing out the level of development in the EU regions and there will be sufficient funds available for research and development in the new framework program,” Enciu, a member of the Parliament’s industry committee, concluded.

The European Commission presented on 29 June its proposals for the EU's next seven-year budget  for 2014-2020 – the so-called Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF).

The Commission proposed raising the next seven-year budget to €1.025 billion, up from the current €976 billion. This represents a 4.8% increase, which is beyond the average 2% inflation recorded in the last decade.

The new common strategic framework for research, now dubbed Horizon 2020, will absorb existing research funding such as the European Institute of Technology (EIT) and the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme (CIP).

The Commission’s draft research budget would see the Horizon 2020 programme use about €80 billion in the post-2013 MFF.

About €350 billion, meanwhile, is set to be available for the structural funds.

  • 22 Nov. 2011: European Parliamentary workshop to discuss the paper on synergy between the structural funds and Horizon 2020.

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