EU re­search bud­get in­crease ‘not enough to end low suc­cess rates’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Uni­ver­si­ties have warned that the Euro­pean Union’s planned in­crease in its post-2020 re­search bud­get might not be enough to tackle van­ish­ingly low grant ap­pli­ca­tion suc­cess rates at the Euro­pean Re­search Coun­cil.

The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion set out on 2 May plans to spend about

€ 100 bil­lion (£88 bil­lion) on Hori­zon Europe, the seven-year re­search and in­no­va­tion frame­work pro­gramme that will suc­ceed the cur­rent pro­gramme, Hori­zon 2020.

This rep­re­sents an in­crease of about 30 per cent on Hori­zon 2020, but is far less than the dou­bling of the bud­get that many univer­sity and re­search or­gan­i­sa­tions had been lob­by­ing for.

Nev­er­the­less, re­search is one of the few ar­eas of the com­mis­sion bud­get that is set to re­ceive more money in the next decade, while fund­ing for the Eras­mus+ stu­dent ex­change pro­gramme would double to € 30 bil­lion, al­low­ing about 12 mil­lion stu­dents to travel abroad in the pe­riod 2021-27, up from 4 mil­lion dur­ing Hori­zon 2020.

Ac­cord­ing to Thomas Ester­mann, di­rec­tor for gov­er­nance, fund­ing and pub­lic pol­icy de­vel­op­ment at the Euro­pean Univer­sity As­so­ci­a­tion, part of the logic is to build sup­port for the Euro­pean project by en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to cross bor­ders while young.

The EU’s tra­di­tional big-bud­get items – agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies and funds to help poorer re­gions catch up – are set to be cut back. But they re­main much big­ger pri­or­i­ties than re­search over­all; the EU would spend close to € 300 bil­lion on agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies over the pe­riod. Car­los Moedas, the com­mis­sioner for re­search, science and in­nov- ation, de­scribed Hori­zon Europe in a blog post as an “evo­lu­tion not a rev­o­lu­tion”.

And Mr Ester­mann pointed out that a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of the Hori­zon Europe bud­get – € 10 bil­lion over the pe­riod – had been ear­marked dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions for “re­search and in­no­va­tion in food, agri­cul­ture, ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and the bioe­con­omy”, prob­a­bly as a way to soften the blow of cuts to agri­cul­tural sub­si­dies.

The EUA said that the bud­get “takes the right direc­tion, but does not take the plunge”.

The pro­posed in­creases are “not am­bi­tious enough to meet the com­bined ob­jec­tives of an im­proved av­er­age suc­cess rate, en­hanced fund­ing for in­no­va­tion and re­sourc­ing large-scale ‘mis­sions’, among oth­ers. In­deed, this would re­quire a full-scale dou­bling of the bud­get al­lo­cated to Hori­zon 2020,” the group said.

Poor suc­cess rates for ap­pli­cants to the Euro­pean Re­search Coun­cil have been blamed for wast­ing bil­lions of eu­ros and many hours of re­searchers’ time, as the vast ma­jor­ity of ap­pli­ca­tions are un­suc­cess­ful.

It is also still un­clear ex­actly how much of the € 100 bil­lion would go to uni­ver­si­ties, Mr Ester­mann stressed, because the pro­por­tions to be al­lo­cated to re­search and “in­no­va­tion” – more gen­er­ally tar­geted at com­pa­nies – had not yet been fixed.

How­ever, more funds could come from non-EU mem­bers, such as the UK post-Brexit, if they join as as­so­ciate mem­bers of Hori­zon Europe. The League of Euro­pean Re­search Uni­ver­si­ties has cal­cu­lated that the UK, Nor­way and Is­rael

would add another € 20 bil­lion to the bud­get, bring­ing it to a level for which it has lob­bied.

The bud­get pro­posal – known of­fi­cially as the multi-an­nual fi­nan­cial frame­work – will now be hag­gled over by MEPs and mem­ber state gov­ern­ments, and it will face pres­sure for cuts. The Dutch gov­ern­ment has al­ready re­jected the bud­get, ar­gu­ing that “a smaller EU as a re­sult of Brexit should also mean a smaller bud­get. That en­tails mak­ing clearer choices and spend­ing less.”

The up­com­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions are “not go­ing to be easy”, warned Mr Ester­mann.

Bro­ken ex­pec­ta­tions uni­ver­si­ties had hoped to see more in the EU’s re­search bud­get to help im­prove grant suc­cess rates

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