Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The flag of the European Union

Giampaolo Squarcina/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

European Commission proposes €100 billion research spending plan

The European Commission today proposed spending €100 billion on research from 2021 to 2027 under its next continent-wide science funding program. That is less than some research groups had hoped for. Still, they say it is a good—but not great—opening bid in what are expected to be lengthy negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Union’s member states on a final spending plan.

The €100 billion proposal, which the commission says represents a 50% increase compared with the previous period, includes €97.6 billion for Horizon Europe, the follow-on to the current Horizon 2020 multiyear spending initiative, and €2.4 billion for the nuclear research program Euratom. The total doesn’t include €6 billion for ITER, the international fusion project under construction near Cadarache in France, but it does include  €3.5 billion under the InvestEU fund, which aims to help research projects secure loans or equity funds from other sources. Including funds for digital technologies, the commission is proposing to devote €114.8 billion to research and innovation.

The commission notes that its proposal marks the largest amount ever earmarked for EU research programs, which started in 1984. And it says that although other spending areas, such as agriculture and regional development, are being “moderately” squeezed, they’ve put a priority on protecting science. Research even got star billing as the first topic in the commission’s budget document.

Once the negotiations are done, analysts predict the final amount for Horizon Europe will likely be lower than the proposed €100 billion. Cost-conscious member states often have the final word over the Parliament, which has argued for an even higher budget and requested €120 billion. (When negotiating Horizon 2020, the commission had proposed €80 billion, but settled on €70 billion the final deal in 2013, a 23% increase over the program’s previous iteration.)

Before leaving his post a few months ago, the commission’s top research official, former Director-General for Research Robert-Jan Smits, told ScienceInsider he hoped for a €120 billion proposal. Some lobby groups, including the League of European Research Universities (LERU) in Leuven, Belgium, a group of influential universities, had even called for doubling the research budget. “To be clear, €100 billion is a bare minimum for an ambitious, well-functioning and impactful [program] that will need to meet many challenges,” says LERU Secretary-General Kurt Deketelaere.

European spending negotiations are usually protracted, but this set could be especially challenging. One new facet will be accounting for the impact of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s planned departure from the European Union. Under that plan, the United Kingdom will no longer make a contribution to the European Union’s coffers; in 2016, the U.K. contribution accounted for about  €15 billion of the European Union’s overall budget. Given those lost funds, the commission’s proposal for Horizon Europe is “acceptable,” says the LERU statement. (The commission estimates that Horizon 2020’s budget without the United Kingdom is about €66 billion.) 

Regardless of the final agreed budget for Horizon Europe, the rate of inflation could affect actual spending. The commission’s figure assumes an annual inflation rate of 2% over the life of the program. But if inflation turns out to be higher, the funds available for research will shrink (and vice versa). In addition, the commission’s actual outlays are often smaller than its initial budget commitments.

Horizon Europe won’t be the only continent-wide source of science funding. The commission has also proposed spending a whopping €4.1 billion for collaborative defense research, up from €90 million under an ongoing 3-year pilot program run by the European Defense Agency. (About 600 scientists have signed a petition urging the European Union to stop funding military R&D, arguing that such spending will “not only divert resources from more peaceful areas, but is also likely to fuel arms races, undermining security in Europe or elsewhere.”) 

The commission is expected to issue detailed proposals for each policy area on 7 June, which will form the basis for another series of negotiations.