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Research commissioner Carlos Moedas promised “radical change” to EU innovation policies yesterday at a press conference in Brussels.

Georges Boulougouris/© European Union, 2018

The fight has begun over Europe’s big budget increase for science

European universities are unhappy about the details, announced yesterday, of Horizon Europe, the European Union’s new 7-year research program that will start in 2021. They say the 22% increase in funding overall proposed by the European Commission is the bare minimum and worry that the program shortchanges basic research in favor of innovation funding. “We will fight for a better distribution of the budget,” says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU) in Leuven, Belgium.

The commission had announced some proposed features of Horizon Europe—the successor to the current 7-year program, Horizon 2020—in the past few months, including its overall budget. Details of the plan were unveiled yesterday by Carlos Moedas, the commission’s research chief, at a press conference in Brussels. The €94.1 billion that the commission proposes spending for Horizon Europe in 2021–27 aims to bring “radical change” to innovation policies while preserving funding for “what we always did: good fundamental science,” Moedas said.

Of the total, €16.6 billion would go to the European Research Council (ERC), which gives out generous basic research grants. This is an increase from €13.1 billion under Horizon 2020, the current 7-year program, but ERC’s share of the whole program’s budget would remain at about 17%. Meanwhile, the well-liked Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships for doctoral programs, postdocs, and staff exchanges would see their share decrease slightly, from 8% of Horizon 2020 to about 7% under Horizon Europe. At the same time, the commission wants to spend €10.5 billion—about 11% of the 7-year budget—on the European Innovation Council (EIC), a brand-new agency that will provide funding for entrepreneurs, to stimulate breakthrough technologies without prescribing priority areas.

LERU had hoped that basic research and universities would benefit more from the overall hike. “ERC and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions are victims of the EIC,” Deketelaere says. Universities will also continue to lobby for a bigger overall budget, says Deketelaere, who hopes the program will go up to somewhere between €120 billion and €160 billion.

One of the three main parts of Horizon Europe defines five broad “global challenges” that researchers can participate in: health (€7.7 billion over 7 years); inclusive and secure society (€2.8 billion); digital and industry (€15 billion); climate, energy, and mobility (€15 billion); and food and natural resources (€10 billion). The previous program defined seven “societal challenges”—including separate ones for energy, transport, and climate—and had a separate funding line for industrial technologies.

But the program will also have “Missions,” headline goals that will cut across the program to orient research efforts. Moedas said they should be presented in a way that captures the attention of lay people and involves patients’ associations and other stakeholders. “When [U.S.] President [John F.] Kennedy said: ‘I want to put people on the moon,’ people understand that. We will find missions that people understand,” Moedas said; for example, he said, “curing Alzheimer’s disease” is an easier goal to understand than “mapping the brain.” He added that the number of such missions and their subject hasn’t been chosen, and that each would pool between €5 billion and €10 billion combined from different funding lines.

Maud Evrard, head of policy affairs at Science Europe in Brussels, a group of national science funding agencies and research organizations, sounds a note of caution. “We are open to exploring new approaches like the EIC and Missions,” she tells ScienceInsider. But unlike existing programs like ERC and the Skłodowska-Curie fellowships, which have shown their value over the years, these ideas are still largely untested, and it is important that science organizations play a big part in defining and completing them, she says.

Several groups have complained that health research is shortchanged in the new proposal, with its share of the budget dropping from 9.7% to 8.2%. “It smacks of a lack of ambition or willingness in the commission to tackle head-on the global health challenges facing us, on issues such as the fight against HIV & AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis,” the German Foundation for World Population in Hanover, a development organization, said in a statement.

The proposed spending plan must ultimately be approved by the European Parliament and member states. If the initial reaction is any guide, these negotiations will be lengthy and contentious.