The European Parliament has thrown a spanner into the works of European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan to slash €2.7 billion from the European Union's 2014 to 2020 research budget for a new investment fund to help ramp up Europe's economy. Although E.U. member states seem happy to sign off on Juncker's proposal, the Parliament says the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) must find its money elsewhere. Talks will start on 23 April in Brussels to reconcile these opposing stances.
Juncker and Carlos Moedas, the European Union's research commissioner, say researchers have no cause for alarm. First, the money diverted—including €221 million intended for the European Research Council, which distributes individual grants for fundamental research—represents “only 3.5%” of the overall budget of Horizon 2020, the European Union's 7-year research funding plan, the commission reasons. “After this redeployment, the Horizon 2020 financial envelope is still 38% higher” than that of the previous 7-year program, it adds. Second, the commission claims that the money will not be lost to science: “On the contrary, this is money that will be used to attract much more important sums [from national governments and private investors] that will then be reinvested in innovation.”
Scientists and research organizations don't buy this argument. A group of Nobel laureates urged Juncker in February to reverse what they termed a “misguided and short sighted policy.” Cutting Horizon 2020 funds “send[s] a message that Europe is not the place to do high level science,” they wrote. Universities won't be able to use the money that is diverted, adds the European University Association: Instead of research grants, the funds would become seed capital for loans that many public organizations cannot use because they are not allowed to borrow money.
Support for this view also came from the European Court of Auditors, which slammed EFSI in a report last month, in particular for failing to assess why Horizon 2020 should be tapped into and what would be the consequences of doing so.
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) took some of these concerns on board in their opinion on EFSI, adopted today—a vote that opens a final battle over the plan to divert funds. The Parliament “appears as the only EU institution defending Horizon 2020,” said Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, in a statement. “It is completely unnecessary to transfer money from Horizon 2020,” says Kathleen van Brempt, a Belgian socio-democrat MEP who sits on the Parliament's industry, research, and energy committee. Van Brempt instead wants EFSI to use unused E.U. funds that are normally returned to national governments at the end of each year. “There are large enough leftovers to pay for the [EFSI] guarantee fund,” which Parliament could watch over year after year, she says.
But national finance ministers would prefer to stick with Juncker's initial plan and keep these leftovers in their national chests, so van Brempt knows that member states will fight her proposal during the coming weeks of “trilogue” negotiations—a series of talks between the commission, Parliament, and member states. (Juncker said he wants to finalize the plan before the summer.)
“We can expect weeks of high political games,” Deketelaere says. “The question is who is going to give in.” The Parliament is showing a united front to protect research funds from cuts, but “I don’t know if that will hold until the end,” he adds. “The only condition under which I could live with [cuts to Horizon 2020] is if there are clear links to research and innovation in the regulation, so that we have room for maneuver to make [EFSI-funded projects] relevant to research.”