The new boss of the European Commission has sparked criticism with plans to raid the European Union's science budget to fodder a new investment fund aimed at boosting Europe's sluggish economy and creating new jobs.
In his first big move after about 3 weeks in office, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed diverting €2.7 billion from Horizon 2020, the bloc's €70 billion, 7-year research funding program, into a new "Investment Plan for Europe.” Combined with money from the Connecting Europe Facility, which funds broadband and transport projects, from the European Investment Bank, and from unspecified “budget margins,” the fund would put €21 billion on the table. Juncker says this could attract 15 times that amount from industry and national governments, to reach €315 billion in the next 3 years.
Some research organizations aren't convinced that the €2.7 billion cut from Horizon 2020 will eventually benefit research, as Juncker claimed yesterday when he presented the plan to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. "Horizon 2020 is not a lemon! Stop squeezing it!" said the League of European Research Universities (LERU) in a statement issued yesterday.
Money from the new investment pot could go to any E.U. country and to any project that matches the plan's priorities. The commission has issued few details but says it wants to focus broadly on broadband and energy networks, transport infrastructure, education, research and innovation, as well as renewable energy and energy efficiency. As an example, the commission says the money could help speed up the construction of a “laser-based research infrastructure.”
"I know some of you are worried about the impact on the research and infrastructure allocations. You fear that redirecting money from the Horizon 2020 and Connecting Europe budget lines will mean that money is lost," Juncker told the Parliament yesterday. "But this is not the case. Every euro from these programs paid into the fund creates 15 euros for those very same research and infrastructure projects. We are not just moving money around, we are maximizing its input."
But some say that plan is too optimistic. “What can you do with €21 billion in an economy that amounts to over €12 trillion or more? [Juncker]'s trying to do a miracle with very little,” says Guntram Wolff, director of the economics think tank Bruegel in Brussels.
Wolff doesn't believe national and private funds will multiply the commission's €21 billion by a factor of 15. "Maybe 5 if we're lucky,” he says. The plan is likely to bolster projects that would have happened anyway in this short time frame, enabling investors to make higher profits instead of attracting actual new investment, Wolff says. To finance the scheme, it would be wiser to tap into other parts of the E.U. budget, such as funds for agriculture or regional development, instead of Horizon 2020, he adds.
LERU says the new fund's money is likely to go to “quick win projects that may please politicians and citizens but that will not invest in Europe's future.” LERU's secretary-general Kurt Deketelaere called the plan a “fairytale diversion” that would squeeze the Union's research budget. "Let's stick with the Horizon 2020 budget, which we all welcomed in 2012," he said.
It is still unclear which parts of the Horizon 2020 budget would suffer. “None of [Horizon’s] money [for that period] has been committed at this stage, so nobody can claim to be losing out,” says a commission representative. “On the contrary, everyone should mobilize to put forward really good projects.” Public bodies, companies, or nongovernmental organizations will be able to submit proposals, which will be vetted by an “investment committee,” the representative says.
Juncker hopes to get the plan off the ground by mid-2015—but he will first have to win the approval of the Parliament and member states, which have to agree on the details of the future regulation.