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Research leaders alarmed by planned €5bn Horizon Europe cut

Image: Images Money [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Leaders hit back at ‘weak’ Council president over proposal

The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has unveiled a plan to cut €5 billion from the proposed budget for the EU’s 2021-27 R&D programme, Horizon Europe, provoking angry and dismayed responses from research leaders.

Michel’s proposal, announced on 10 July, allocates €75.9bn in 2018 prices to Horizon Europe from the EU budget. This is €5bn less than the €80.9bn he proposed in February—a figure that was retained in May in a new proposal from the European Commission that responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest proposal from Michel keeps an idea from the Commission to top up Horizon Europe with €13.5bn from a Covid-19 recovery fund called Next Generation EU. Under Michel’s plan, this would bring the programme’s total spending power to €89.4bn, down from the €94.4bn total proposed by the Commission. This compares to a budget of about €77bn for the 2014-20 programme Horizon 2020.

However, the Commission proposed that the €13.5bn fund money should be restricted to thematic funding for health; digital, industry and space; and climate, energy and mobility; as well as the European Innovation Council, which will fund close-to-market support for business and entrepreneurs.

Michel’s plan, if adopted by national leaders in the Council, therefore looks likely to cut proposed funding for other parts of Horizon Europe, which include the flagship European Research Council and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

Research leaders have so far been unanimous in their condemnation of the plans.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, said Michel’s proposal was a “complete disgrace” that disregarded the “enormous added value” of the EU investing in research and innovation. He said the cut was a “complete contradiction” given the EU’s stated goals to push for further digitisation of societies and economies and for greater environmental sustainability, among other knowledge-driven objectives relating to Covid-19.

“Research and innovation policy is going to be crucial for everything he needs to realise [the EU’s ambitions],” Deketelaere said, adding that Michel was a “weak president” who “gives up everything to get a deal”.

Similarly, Ludovic Thilly, chair of the Coimbra Group of universities, warned that “Any additional cut to the already low budget allocated to Horizon Europe is further jeopardizing EU capacity to properly respond to the current and future crises.” He insisted: “Education, research and innovation must be safeguarded.”

Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of the association of research funders and performers Science Europe, described the plans as “shocking and alarming”. She asked: “Are they going to go down and down until we reach the same budget as for Horizon 2020? It is time to invest strongly in research as it is our ticket for a successful future.”

Mattias Björnmalm, an EU science advisor through the Cesaer university network, said the “deep cuts” were “extremely counterproductive”. He wrote on Twitter: “Research and innovation has proven its value again and again during the pandemic and will be crucial for recovery and resilience in Europe. These cuts must be reversed!”

Michel’s proposal is his second attempt to reach agreement among national leaders in the Council, ahead of a meeting on 17-18 July. His first proposal failed to deliver a consensus, and then the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a May proposal from the Commission to which Michel has now responded.

Michel has broken his new proposal into six “building blocks”: the total size of the budget, rebates to net contributor countries, the size of the recovery fund, the balance between loans and grants in that fund, the timing of recovery payments over the coming years and the governance and conditionality of those payments.

Agreement on the overarching EU budget is needed in the next few months if not weeks to ensure programmes can start on time in January 2021. Some national leaders broadly support the May Commission proposal, but the leaders of four countries—Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden—have expressed reservations about the total funding proposed and the way it would be allocated.