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ERC leaders flag ‘massive wakeup call’ on European R&D funding

Image: Bob Bob [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Europe must respond to global competitors’ growing R&D spending, eminent scientists say

Leaders of the European Research Council, the EU’s most prestigious research funder, have told politicians that the disparities between spending on R&D by Europe and by its global competitors should be a “massive wakeup call”, and that increased spending is needed immediately to avoid scientific and technological dependence.

Europe’s R&D spending has been “stagnant” while China has set out plans for 7 per cent annual growth and the United States has approved “massive” investment in research and innovation, the ERC’s executive Scientific Council said in a statement it published on 19 July, which echoed a speech the funder’s interim president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon delivered to EU research ministers the same day.

“This should be a massive wakeup call for Europe’s policymakers. Europe cannot afford to content itself with a routine attitude at this critical moment. Decisive actions are needed now, so that in two decades time we will not be lamenting that Europe is a scientific follower dependent on others for the key knowledge and technologies its citizens need,” the leaders said.

‘Last chance’

They said a Pact for Research and Innovation, designed to reinvigorate the EU’s longstanding European Research Area policy initiative for raising standards and removing barriers to mobility, “may be the last chance” to realise the ERA goals, including spending on average 3 per cent of GDP on R&D.

A draft version of the pact published by the European Commission on 16 July only asks EU governments to “confirm their intention” to meet the target. Few governments meet it at present, and average EU spending on R&D has languished at about 2 per cent of GDP for years.

Long-term view

The ERC leaders asked ministers to take a long-term view of research investments, which they said only yield results when they nourish projects with objectives beyond immediate political priorities and are sustained by successive governments.

“Putting all the resources into certain priority areas can in reality lower our chances of achieving progress, even paradoxically in the priority areas,” the Scientific Council said.

Bourguignon gave his speech at an informal meeting attended by research ministers from the EU as well as delegates from countries belonging to the European Free Trade Association and the Western Balkans.

The plea for politicians to wake up to the danger Europe is facing came just days after EU governments decided they want to cut the proposed 2022 budget for the bloc’s R&D programme by €316 million.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight