Facing pressure from E.U. parliamentarians and scientists, the European Commission agreed yesterday to spare the European Research Council (ERC) from budget cuts. But this is only a limited relief: The overall E.U. research and innovation program Horizon 2020, of which ERC is part, will see €2.2 billion of its €74 billion budget until 2020 go into to a new, controversial investment fund aimed at boosting Europe's sluggish economy.
In January, the commission had proposed trimming €2.7 billion from Horizon 2020's budget, including €221.2 million from ERC's envelope, to fodder the European Fund for Strategic Investment. This prompted an outcry from scientists and members of the European Parliament.
After eight talks with the European Parliament and member states in the past month, which culminated yesterday in an all-nighter session in Brussels, the commission said it would find €500 million elsewhere. Two other Horizon 2020 budget lines are safe from cuts as well: the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions, which provide funding for Ph.D. and postdoc fellowships, and a program called Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation, which aims at helping member states with poor research performance.
ERC, which provides generous individual grants for basic research, has become popular among European scientists, in part because it is open to any topic and light on bureaucracy. Research commissioner Carlos Moedas said the commission had listened to scientists' concerns and tried to “minimise any contribution from fundamental research.” (Two weeks ago, Moedas and commission President Jean-Claude Juncker discussed this issue with several Nobel Prize winners.) “This compromise concerning the budget gives a clear sign that frontier research has an important role to play in Europe and that the support for it will always be given proper consideration,” ERC President Jean-Pierre Bourguignon said in a statement today.
The League of European Research Universities, one of the groups that had campaigned against the cuts, was less upbeat in a statement issued yesterday. The league expressed its relief that ERC's budget would remain untouched, but maintained that plundering Horizon 2020 is a bad idea to start with.
However, the commission is sticking to its justification: These €2.2 billion will be put to better use as loans for entrepreneurs than as Horizon 2020 grants, said Jyrki Katainen, the commission's vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, at a press conference in Brussels yesterday. The fund will help attract “sleeping money” from private investors, added budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva.
“We feel very strongly that we are doing a service to innovation in Europe,” Georgieva said. “We are making it more likely that our smart young people will not jump on planes to go [to the United States], but they will stay here and invest here and produce here in Europe.”
The deal still has to be confirmed formally next month by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament's plenary, before the fund can start its operations in September.