The European Parliament’s debating chamber in Strasbourg, France

DAVID ILIFF (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Here’s why the outcomes of this week’s European elections are good news for science

Although populist and euroskeptic parties grew in last week’s elections for the European Parliament, the tsunami that EU supporters feared didn’t happen. That comes as a relief to many scientists, because several of the populist movements now on the rise in Europe appear to have little interest in science, flirt with antiscientific ideas, or have tried to curtail academic freedom.

Observers in Brussels expect the new Parliament to continue its policy of defending generous research budgets. But the rise of pro-European Union green and liberal groups—at the expense of the Parliament’s traditionally two dominant parties—could lead to small shifts in science and technology priorities, some say, such as greener policies.

The elections’ direct influence on EU science policy is limited because most of the details of Horizon Europe, its next 7-year research funding program, have already been agreed to by the outgoing Parliament and member states. But the new members of Parliament (MEPs) still have to negotiate two big items: the program’s budget from 2021 to 2027, which could be about €100 billion, and rules for the participation of countries outside of the European Union. Next year, Parliament will also examine rules for big public-private partnerships on research and innovation.

According to provisional results published yesterday, the biggest winner is the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, which would add 40 MEPs to its current 69, whereas the greens would grow from 52 to 69 MEPs. The biggest losers are political groups that have long dominated European politics: the conservative European People’s Party and the socio-democrats, which would lose 36 and 39 seats, respectively. Voter turnout was at its highest since 1994, at about 51%.

Liberals and greens will now have more clout to push their already articulate research agendas, says Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association in Brussels. “You have these research veterans in the Parliament; almost all of them are conservative,” Jørgensen says, alluding, for example, to MEPs Jerzy Buzek from Poland and Christian Ehler from Germany, who have focused much of their careers on research and innovation policy. “Now, there could be space for a liberal or green research champion, giving broad support to research and pushing for climate and sustainability issues.”

Now there could be space for a liberal or green research champion …

Thomas Jørgensen, European University Association

On international cooperation, Jørgensen expects the new Parliament to support the European Commission’s “open to the world” approach, which seeks to develop scientific collaborations with countries outside Europe and allows nonmembers such as Norway, Switzerland, and Israel to compete in research funding programs in exchange for an association fee. “So many progressive MEPs have been elected on that ‘open society’ ticket”—as opposed to the nationalist and “Europe first” discourses of populist parties, he says.

Far-right and euroskeptic parties did score high in countries such as Italy and France, but the predicted populist flood didn’t materialize across the continent. (The two main euroskeptic groups combined would go from 78 MEPs in the outgoing Parliament to 112 after the elections, whereas the European Conservatives and Reformists lost 18 seats.) But scientists and their institutions should remain vigilant about their influence, says Maud Evrard, head of policy affairs at the Brussels-based Science Europe, a group of funding agencies and research organizations.

“We’re concerned about academic freedom. We shouldn’t take it for granted,” she says. (In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán has taken aim at Central European University, a private institution in Budapest, for instance.) “We will push the Parliament to promote and defend freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and thought” at the national level, Evrard says, as well as evidence-based policymaking.

Parliament’s exact balance of power will be decided in the coming weeks; 29 MEPs are not allied to any existing political group yet. At its first plenary session in July, Parliament will then vote to elect the next president of the commission, who is put forward by the European Union’s heads of state and government. They will assemble a new commission, the European Union’s executive arm, including a commissioner for research and innovation to succeed Carlos Moedas from Portugal. The new Parliament will have a chance to grill the candidate for that post—and reveal its science policy inclinations—after the summer.