The European Parliament on 10 November secured an unexpected €4 billion boost to Horizon Europe, the European Union’s next research funding program.
The final €85 billion budget is €1.5 billion more than first proposed by the European Commission in 2018, but €5 billion is reserved for applied research and support for small tech firms under a postpandemic recovery fund. The remaining budget is a little larger than the current program, Horizon 2020, but European agencies receive less in the early years of a 7-year budget. That means basic science organs such as the European Research Council (ERC) could have less money in 2021 than in 2020, depending on further negotiations over the budget breakdown, to be held in the coming weeks.
That’s why the €4 billion windfall should go to ERC and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship program, says Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities, who says the amount is “peanuts.” He and other higher education advocates lobbied for a €160 billion research budget, and Parliament wanted €120 billion. “It’s really annoying to see how a lot of people are now presenting this as a kind of victory,” he says.
EU budgets are traditionally decided by unanimous agreement among national leaders—the European Council. In July, they struck a €1.8 trillion deal that would spend €81 billion on Horizon Europe between 2021–27—a blow to researchers’ hopes. But for the first time ever, Parliament used powers it acquired in 2009 to block the budget and force member states to negotiate.
Christian Ehler, one of Parliament’s negotiators for Horizon Europe, says the forthcoming talks on the breakdown of the agreed budget have to conclude quickly for the program to begin on time, so neither side is likely to demand drastic changes to how the money is spent. Although he doesn’t rule out a drop in basic science funding for 2021, he says ERC can hope for a “moderate rise” over the 7 years—but “they won’t get the rise they were asking for.” The negotiations will also decide participation rules for non-EU countries.
The extra money will come from antitrust fines and unspent budget commitments that would normally be deducted from national contributions. Deketelaere views those sources as unreliable, and says they are an indication of governments’ unwillingness to fund research themselves: “Amazon is going to pay for the top-up of Horizon Europe!” The Commission yesterday launched an investigation into the firm’s business practices. In recent years, the European Union has fined Google more than €8 billion.
One possible obstacle to the finality of Parliament’s deal comes from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has threatened to veto the EU budget over proposals to cut funding to countries deemed to have weakened the rule of law. He isn’t disputing the agreed on budget numbers, but a veto would delay everything and force a provisional budget for 2021, based on this year’s spending. Hungary has also clashed with the European Union over its 2017 Higher Education Law, which drove the anglophone Central European University into neighboring Austria.