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Hope for EU science?

Collapse of budget talks may be a good thing for research, commissioner suggests

By | June 22, 2005

The failure of European Union (EU) leaders to reach an agreement over the EU budget last week need not be a setback for research in the region, European Commissioner for Research Janez Potočnik said today (June 22).

Potočnik, speaking after a press conference by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in Brussels, put a positive spin on the budget summit collapse, saying that it could now open up a new debate about EU spending.

"If a real discussion now starts about having a budget that looks forward to the future and spends more on science and research, then it could turn out to be a good thing," his spokeswoman Antonia Mochan told The Scientist.

Potočnik's comments may help reassure European scientists concerned that the collapse of the EU summit last week and the failure to agree on a budget could have negative consequences for research, delaying projects and slashing funds, and potentially hindering the formation of a new European Research Council (ERC).

Helga Nowotny, the head of the European Research Advisory Board, an independent body that advises the European Commission on science, urged governments to agree on the EU budget for research.

A doubling of the research budget to 70 billion euros had been proposed by the European Commission for the next EU budget cycle covering 2007–2013, a plan widely seen by European scientists as the best chance for catching up with the United States. But ahead of last week's meeting, the European science community had been anticipating major cutbacks.

"If there are cuts, as is realistically to be expected, [the question is] how to cut and what? Personally, I strongly think that linear cuts must be avoided and that preference should be given to the new elements of the Seventh Framework Programme, that is, to the European Research Council, and JETIs [Joint European Technology Initiatives]," Nowotny told The Scientist.

"Despite the dark cloud on the financial perspectives, I think that politically the ERC cannot be killed," she said.

Talks on the long-term EU budget collapsed after the British government insisted that it would only consider a reduction in its £3 billion rebate in return for a commitment that much of £32 billion that the European Union currently spends on agricultural subsidies would be channeled into research and competitiveness instead.

The United Kingdom is due to take over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, and has stated that it intends to use its presidency to press for an agreement on the budget. "I hope that the UK presidency will succeed in opening a wider debate on priorities, especially on where we stand with investment into research, education, and innovation," Nowotny said.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, president of the European Heads of Research Councils, also called on EU governments to spend more on research. "Reducing the research budget while at the same time maintaining agricultural subsidies is the path of least resistance instead of a path that opens perspectives for the future," he told The Scientist.

"Research Commissioner Potočnik put forward an extremely promising and future-orientated plan for research in the Seventh Framework Programme from 2007. As scientists, we were delighted that Brussels seemed to have understood, at last, that there could be no innovation without basic research."

Mochan said that the earliest date that a budget agreement could be made was in October when the UK government is expected to hold a summit in Brussels.

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