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European Council President Charles Michel offered up cuts to research spending to reach a deal.

European Union

EU leaders slash science spending in €1.8 trillion deal

Following a marathon EU summit in Brussels, national leaders this morning agreed to a €1.8 trillion, 7-year budget and pandemic recovery fund that will spend €81 billion on Horizon Europe, the main EU research program. That’s far less than what researchers had hoped for—and €13.5 billion less than a proposal 2 months ago from the European Commission, the EU executive arm.

The cuts are “a major disappointment and a breach of trust,” given European politicians’ rhetoric on the importance of research, says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities.

The summit deal, reached after 4 days—and nights—of tense negotiations, has two major pieces: a €1.07 trillion regular budget plus a €750 billion pandemic recovery fund that is split nearly evenly between grants and loans. Just €5 billion of the recovery fund will be spent within Horizon Europe—and the Commission doesn’t plan to spend any of that on the European Research Council (ERC), the EU basic research funder.

Excluding the recovery fund money, the core Horizon Europe budget is now €76 billion for 2021–27, a similar size to the predecessor program, Horizon 2020. That means ERC’s budget could drop next year because more money is spent at the end of each 7-year budget cycle than at the start. Other basic science support could be similarly strained, including Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships and funding for research infrastructure. Lawmakers can still increase ERC’s share of Horizon Europe’s diminished budget, but only by making even deeper cuts to other parts of the program that fund top-down research initiatives, public-private R&D partnerships, and tech startups.

In the middle of negotiations, ERC took the unusual step of promoting a statement published last week by its Scientific Council, which said it was “dismayed” by the research funding cuts proposed by summit leader Charles Michel, president of the European Council—the assembly of prime ministers and presidents. As recently as December 2019, Michel has said the European Union should “invest massively in research.”

All 27 EU countries had to agree unanimously for the budget to pass, and the concerns of different governments made research spending a soft target for concessions. The departure of the United Kingdom punched a hole in overall EU finances, and the “frugal four” of the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Austria wanted to spend less on Europe, although they are generally enthusiastic about the research program. But southern and eastern EU countries sought to maintain farm subsidies and the cohesion budget, which pays for development in less wealthy regions. That made research “one of the easiest parts to reduce,” says Deketelaere, who sees the result as a lobbying failure. “Seemingly we are not important enough as voters or as voices that will criticize them,” he says.

Jan Palmowski, secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, says Horizon Europe’s emphasis on innovation over basic science is a “massive problem” for universities, and the cuts exacerbate the disparity. “It will change the way our members engage within the program,” he says.

A separate health program—intended to prepare for the next pandemic by stockpiling medicines, monitoring threats, and creating a reserve force of health care workers—will receive €1.7 billion. That’s far short of the €9.4 billion that the Commission wanted, but more than triple the size of the current EU health budget. The deal also includes €7 billion for defense research; €5 billion for the ITER fusion reactor; and €13 billion for joint operations with the European Space Agency to support projects such as the Galileo satellite navigation system. Digital Europe, a capacity-building program for artificial intelligence, supercomputing, and cybersecurity, gets €6.8 billion.

The European Parliament, which wanted €120 billion for Horizon Europe, can veto the settlement, but that would be an exceptionally bold move. Nevertheless, Palmowski argues the Parliament is eager to assert itself and came close to blocking Ursula von der Leyen’s appointment as Commission president last year. Christian Ehler, a German member of the Parliament who supports a large research budget, says “the deal will cement Europe’s fall behind its global competitors in Asia and the USA.” National parliaments will be asked to ratify separate legislation that allows taxpayers’ money to fund the budget.

Later this year, national ministers and the European Parliament will negotiate how the research budget is divided up, along with participation rules for non-EU countries. The Parliament may use those talks to push for a stronger say in how the recovery fund is spent, Palmowski says. “Parliament may not change the figure, but they will want their pound of flesh in other ways,” he says.