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Failed Summit Spares Research Bad News ... For Now

Still talking. European Union leaders still need to settle on a new budget, including funding for research

The Council of the European Union

European researchers can perhaps be thankful for one thing about last week's European Union budget negotiations: The participants were unable to strike a deal. That may only delay bad news, however. The latest proposals for the innovation budget, which includes research and education funding, cut as much as 15% from the €164 billion proposed last year by the European Commission, the E.U. executive branch. And E.U. research leaders aren't optimistic they'll do much better by the time budget negotiations actually end, which may now be next year.

On 22 and 23 November, the leaders of all 27 E.U. member countries met in Brussels to come up with a budget agreement for 2014 through 2020. Given the financial crisis and austerity budgets across the region, several member countries have argued that the overall E.U. budget should be cut significantly. British Prime Minister David Cameron has called for slashing €200 billion from the roughly €1 trillion budget proposed by the commission. In the weeks leading up to the summit, scientists and research organizations had been lobbying European leaders to spare the innovation budget the worst cuts. Although several top politicians—including European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who helped to lead last week's summit—have said they support research funding, it looks increasingly likely that they will make large cuts anyway. The most recent E.U. budget proposal put forward by Van Rompuy proposed deeper cuts to innovation—as well as transportation and energy—to placate the countries insisting on more money for agriculture and so-called cohesion funds, which help Europe's poorer regions. Those two programs take up the bulk of the overall budget and have the strongest lobbying power behind them.

By Friday afternoon, the participants said they were too far apart on the overall numbers to find a compromise and decided they'd have to meet again. Leaders have until the end of 2013 to hammer out an agreement. If they don't meet that deadline, current funding levels, adjusted for inflation, will continue until they find a compromise.

The state of negotiations "does not bode well" for the research budget, says Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, an E.U.-funded program that awards grants to top basic researchers. "The vested interests of agriculture and cohesion as well as the sums involved there are just too big and overwhelming," she says.