The Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels is one of the institutes under BELSPO's umbrella.

The Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels is one of the institutes under BELSPO's umbrella.


Belgium's federal research agency under threat

BRUSSELS—Pretty much everything in this tiny country of 11 million is divided along the language border between Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and Wallonia, the predominantly French-speaking southern part—including science policy. Now, the Belgian government wants to ax one of the few agencies that still straddle the divide, the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO). The plan has triggered protests from Belgian researchers who worry that the move will harm collaboration across the language frontier and endanger internationally renowned research projects.

In the past decades, science responsibilities have already been devolved from Belgium's federal government to authorities in Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels, the bilingual capital. Together, regional and community governments now manage about three-quarters of the nation’s science funds. BELSPO is in charge of 10 federal museums and science institutes, including the Royal Observatory of Belgium and the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium; it also manages Belgium's contribution to the European Space Agency, worth about €200 million per year.

Last month, the coalition government pledged to scrap BELSPO and integrate its functions “elsewhere,” and to carry out an audit of science funding channels. “In mid-2015, the government will rationalize current funding channels in a bid to make net savings,” says the government plan, issued on 10 October.

In a petition launched last week, scientists urged the government to reverse the decision, saying it would push the country “below the threshold of scientific … poverty.” (The plea now has about 9000 signatures—and counting.) “The government is planning to destroy the existing structures, but we don't really know what will replace them,” says marine biogeochemist Frank Dehairs, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel—one of the scientists who launched the petition.

BELSPO President Philippe Mettens says other small, federal states such as Switzerland maintain a strong central oversight of the science system. “On the international science scene, Wallonia, Flanders, or Brussels alone don't mean much,” Mettens says.

BELSPO provides the only funding tools available to link up researchers from the Dutch, French, and German-speaking parts of the country working on joint projects, Dehairs says. “BELSPO projects have largely helped bring us to the forefront internationally,” and enabled collaborations with colleagues in other parts of the world, he adds. For instance, Dehairs secured BELSPO funding for a marine biochemistry project in the Southern Ocean called BIGSOUTH, which brings together five Belgian research teams with a budget of €1.2 million over 4 years—plus logistics support for costly missions in the Antarctic.

Belgian researchers worry in particular about losing a funding program called Interuniversity Attraction Poles (IAP), which funds the “crème de la crème” of the nation's science, as Mettens puts it. (This summer, researchers already raised the alarm about the possible end of the IAP after 2017; François Englert, the Belgian physicist who shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics with Peter Higgs, called on the government to maintain the program.)

Speaking to the federal parliament's lower house last week, Elke Sleurs, the state secretary in charge of science, announced plans to set up an “Interfederal space agency,” with more involvement from the regional authorities. The federal museums and institutes will become autonomous and should seek more external funding from private sponsors or crowdfunding, she said. Sleurs, a member of the separatist New Flemish Alliance party, will explain how these political intentions will translate into “concrete measures” on 9 December, says her representative.