On the Horizon? European Commission Outlines €80 Billion Research Budget

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, is trying to not let the region's financial woes curb its commitment to scientific and technological research. Today, even as E.U. finance ministers struggle to prop up debt-ridden member states, the commission laid out its proposal for a significant increase in the region's research funding over the 7-year period from 2014 to 2020. The commission has called on the 27 member states of the European Union to spend €80 billion ($108 billion) in a broad-ranging program dubbed Horizon 2020 that will cover everything from fundamental science to near-market product development. "For the first time at the European level, Horizon 2020 offers a seamless coherent package of support from idea to market, from excellent ideas to products people want to buy," research commissioner Márie Geoghegan-Quinn told reporters.

Some parts of Horizon 2020, including the European Research Council (ERC) and the more controversial European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), would get dramatic funding increases under the commission's plan. Whether those hikes survive remains to be seen, however. Much as the U.S. president's annual budget proposal must work its way through Congress, Horizon 2020 must be approved by the E.U. member states and by the European Parliament. Europolicy wonks anticipate months of wrangling before the shape and size of the program is finally settled before the end of 2013.

The European Commission has given Horizon 2020 three strategic objectives—excellent science, industrial leadership, and societal challenges—and divided the proposed funding along those lines. "Excellent science," with a budget of €24.6 billion, encompasses the ERC as well as funding for emerging technologies and the Marie Curie Actions, a program that supports training and career development of researchers and helps them find work in other E.U. states. The biggest chunk of that money would go to the ERC, which gives grants to researchers based solely on scientific merit. The ERC's proposed €13.2 billion is a 77% increase on its funding during the existing Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), with runs from 2007-13.

To some, that proposed increase endorses the creation in 2007 of the ERC as an agency that funds basic, not applied, science. "This is the best news I have heard recently, being Greek and all that," says ERC founding president Fotis Kafatos of Imperial College London. "It's a very strong indication that the importance of it has been understood by political leadership and augurs well for European development." In past years, he adds, "There was always the feeling that the political people were more interested in what were the tangible effects now."

Current ERC President Helga Nowotny of the Vienna Science and Technology Fund also welcomed the budget increase, although she had sought $24 billion, a 200% increase. "Of course, one can always hope for more," she told ScienceInsider. "Overall I am pleased with the sum; given the general economic climate, it is very important for us we are able to maintain and continue what we've been doing in the past."

EIT, the other major new research effort started during FP7, would also enjoy good fortune under Horizon 2020's proposal. Championed originally by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, EIT is intended to be an incubator of new ideas and technologies, akin to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But unlike its cousin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, EIT is not a single institution in one location, and many have been critical of the European effort. EIT has an administration in Budapest, which organizes researchers in various institutions across Europe into Knowledge and Innovation Communities. There are currently three such KICs, studying sustainable energy, climate change, and information and communication technology (ICT). Under Horizon 2020, EIT will get a budget of €2.8 billion (up from €309 million since its 2008 launch). This will enable it to launch six more KICs: added-value manufacturing, food4future, innovation for healthy living and active ageing, raw materials, smart secure societies, and urban mobility. Education commissioner Androulla Vassiliou says the KICs hope to train 25,000 masters' students and 10,000 Ph.D.s. She called innovation "an exit strategy from the [European financial] crisis."

The second Horizon 2020 objective, "industrial leadership," with a budget of €17.9 billion, would include major E.U. investments in areas such as ICT, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and space. The European Union would also provide seed money to help companies attract larger sums from private investors.

The third objective, "societal challenges," would have the European Union spend €31.7 billion in the following areas affecting the lives of European citizens:

  • Health, demographic change, and well-being
  • Food security, sustainable agriculture, marine and maritime research, and the bio-based economy
  • Secure, clean, and efficient energy
  • Smart, green, and integrated transport
  • Climate action, resource efficiency, and raw materials
  • Inclusive, innovative, and secure societies.

Achieving these will require greater cooperation between the European Union and member states that are carrying out those goals, Nowotny says. They will need a good organization to make sure they are all "pulling together in the same direction."

One problem that has plagued earlier E.U. research programs such as FP7 is the lengthy and byzantine application process and burdensome micromanagement by the commission after grants are awarded. "Horizon 2020 means more research and less bureaucracy," Geoghegan-Quinn said at a press briefing. "We want our scientists and innovators to spend more time in laboratory and workshops and less filling in forms." The commission claims that Horizon 2020 will cut down substantially on red tape. The aim is to trim the length of the application process from the current average of 350 days to 250, simplify reimbursement for indirect costs, and have just two rates of funding, for research and close-to-market development. Nowotny says the ERC, in fact, has been at the "forefront" of the simplification steps that are now being adopted by Horizon 2020 as a whole, such as eliminating timesheets, decreasing the burden of audits, and simplifying overhead costs. And Vassiliou says she wants EIT to be a "champion of simplification" by giving the KICs more flexibility and autonomy and treating them as an "idea testing ground."

The commission's proposal is bold, considering Europe's straitened financial times. Geoghegan-Quinn urges the scientific community to rally behind it. "Researchers and scientists are not by nature lobbyists," she says, but it's important they push to protect the Commission's proposed budget.