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EU budget deal blow to scientists

Research spending may increase by as little as 8 percent annually until 2013

By | December 22, 2005

The European Union (EU) budget package for 2007-2013 wrapped up this weekend and inspired fears of only a minimal increase for research, sparking strong criticism from scientists.

A European Council source told The Scientist that the research budget would rise by as little as 8% a year, amounting to a total of 50 billion euros in real terms for the next seven years.

Janez Potocnik, the European commissioner for research, who had been pushing for a doubling in research spending in a bid to reverse years of low spending on science, said in a statement that the reduced budget deal called for "a prioritization of resources on those areas with the greatest added value."

Doubling would have designated 68 billion euros for research between 2007-2013, compared to the 34 billion euros spent on research in the 2000-2006 EU budget package.

Frank Gannon, director of the European Molecular Biology Organization, said that scientists were "hugely" saddened by the news. "From what I see, the increase seems to be barely above the rate of inflation," he told The Scientist.

The UK government, which holds EU Presidency until the end of this year, has urged an increase in spending on research by 75% by 2013 -- from 5 billion euros to 8.75 billion euros, and plans to enter negotiations on the budget details in January.

Gannon warned that the reduced budget could endanger the European Research Council (ERC), due to start operating in 2007. The ERC is envisaged as a source of much-needed funding for fundamental research at an EU level, and scientists are concerned that a squeeze in funding may have a detrimental effect on the ERC. "The brightest and best scientists will be more inclined to stay in Europe if they are able to carry through their hardest experiments in the ERC," Gannon said.

However, Helga Nowotny, vice chair of the Scientific Council of the ERC, told The Scientist in an email interview that she was optimistic that the ERC would still get enough money. It "is widely understood that [one billion euros] will be needed to make an impact and to create a critical mass of researchers engaged in 'frontier' research in Europe," she said.

Adeline Farrelly, communications manager of EuropaBio, strongly criticized Europe's politicians for failing to do more to promote a thriving knowledge-based economy by investing in research. "Europe is already way behind the US in terms of public research spending and commercializing research, and we need to make catching up a top priority if we want to generate jobs and economic growth in the future," she told The Scientist.

Still, Catherine Groeger, from the Brussels office of Germany's Fraunhofer Society, told The Scientist that the society was relieved that a budget deal had been done after months of tense negotiations. "We were worried that a deal would be postponed yet again creating difficulties in planning for our participation in EU seventh framework program," she said.

The EU science funding squeeze comes after the UK government refused to substantially increase the total amount of money being paid into the EU pot, while the French government blocked attempts to refocus the existing resources away from agricultural subsidies towards science.

Gannon noted that the current EU research budget is 5% of all public money, or 5 billion euros—significantly less than the 27 billion dollars that the US spends on its national health institutes.

The total budget for 2007-2013 – which must still be approved by the European parliament -- is set at 862.36 billion euros, or 1.045 per cent of the EU's gross domestic product.

EU research spending currently amounts to just under 5 billion euros. Forty-nine billion euros is spent on subsidies to agriculture, and 32 billion euros on regional aid.

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