Scientists Lobby Three E.U. Presidents to Prevent Budget Cuts

Facing the science lobby. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (center, right) meets with researchers opposed to cuts in the European Union's research budget.

European Council

Scientists made their voices heard at the highest levels in Europe today. A delegation led by two Nobel laureates held sequential meetings with the European Union's three presidents—European Parliament President Martin Schulz, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso—to lobby them to spare research funding from looming cuts in the European Union's budget.

Van Rompuy will be part of a summit next week where the heads of the 27 E.U. member countries are supposed to hammer out a compromise on the union's overall budget for 2014 through 2020. Because of the ongoing economic crisis, the €1 trillion budget proposed by the European Commission is likely to be slashed. But a growing chorus of scientists and research organizations has been arguing that research funding should be protected from cuts, because it offers a path out of the crisis and a way to strengthen the European Union's economy in the long term.

Today's delegation was led by Nobel laureates Tim Hunt and Jules Hoffmann, two of the organizers of an open letter published in more than a dozen European newspapers last month. The letter warned that if severe cuts happen, "we risk losing a generation of talented scientists just when Europe needs them most." The laureates presented the letter to the three leaders, along with an online petition in support of the letter that gathered more than 130,000 signatures. Hunt and Hoffmann were joined by Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council (ERC), which is funded by the European Union and gives grants to many of Europe's top basic researchers. Also present were organizers of the petition, Maria Leptin and Wolfgang Eppenschwandtner of the Initiative for Science in Europe, and Leif Schröder of the Young Academy of Europe.

Hunt says they were warmly received by all three presidents at the meetings in Brussels. "They're on our side, no question about that," he says. "Van Rompuy said he'd do his best to protect [research funds]" in the upcoming negotiations. Van Rompuy's support may matter most in the short term, because the European Council—the body representing the governments of the member states—has the most power over spending.

The researchers are particularly worried that the proposed €80 billion budget for the Horizon 2020 program, which will fund basic and applied research during the 7-year budget period, will receive a disproportionate share of cuts. In the last round of budget negotiations in 2006, officials cut spending on agriculture, infrastructure, and economic development by 10% from proposed levels, but slashed research by 30%. "I don't think anyone wants to see the research budget cut," Hunt says, "but it's squeezed" between two much larger categories of E.U. funding, agriculture subsidies and so-called cohesion funding, which supports infrastructure and development in the European Union's poorer regions.

The researchers' plea has also garnered support from some politicians at the national level. Germany's research and education minister, Annette Schavan, told a meeting in Berlin this month that she would "personally champion" the cause of research funding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel supports some cuts to the proposed overall budget, but her proposals are not as severe as those from leaders of Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

In fact, it is the United Kingdom that researchers may have to worry about most, says Hunt, who is British. Although the United Kingdom receives a disproportionate share of E.U. research funds—it hosts by far the most ERC grant recipients—general skepticism about the European Union tends to color most British politicians' views of E.U. research funding as well, he says.

However, some countries calling for the most austerity also advocate spending more on research. Sweden, for example, favors overall cuts of more than €150 billion but wants a bigger proportion of the E.U. budget spent on research and innovation. "Cutting the budget doesn't mean that you can't also reform the budget," says Daniel Wennick of the business group the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. The Swedes say that the European Union should instead trim its generous agricultural subsidies, but France, the biggest beneficiary of the farm subsidies, is dead set against deeper cuts.

Many observers predict that Europe's leaders will fail to reach a deal at the summit next week, and a final decision between member countries, Parliament, and the commission won't come until summer 2013 at the earliest.