Europeans support science spending

Ahead of a decision on EU research budget, polls show public backing for more funding

By | June 13, 2005

A majority of EU citizens think that the European Union (EU) should spend more money on scientific research, according to two polls released by the European Commission today (June 13), just days before the leaders of EU nations are due to decide on science funding levels for coming years.

Two "Eurobarometer" reports commissioned by the European Commission's Directorate General for Research show that 71% of EU citizens agree that collaborative research at the EU level is growing in importance, and 59% consider that the EU should spend more money on scientific research.

The surveys were conducted in January and February, but the timing of their release this week is impeccable. On June 16, the heads of EU national governments are due to agree on the size of the research budget for 2007–2013. The European Commission had proposed a doubling of the current spending level on research under the 7th Framework Programme, but the indications are that national governments will want the increase to be significantly smaller.

"The results clearly show the wish of European citizens to have research better funded not only at the EU level, but also at the national level," Michel Claessens, spokesman for research directorate general, told The Scientist.

The polls showed that 64% of Europeans think the EU economy can only become more competitive by applying advanced technologies, and 88% agree that the United States is more advanced than Europe in research.

There is a clear political message for Europe's leaders in the results, said research commissioner Janez Potočnik. In a statement on Monday he said: "This data comes at a very good moment. As our political leaders discuss the budgetary framework for 2007–2013, we see a strong view emerging from citizens that more needs to be done at European level in this area that is so important for their future."

Antonia Mochan, spokeswoman for science and research at the European Commission, added that the survey shows that 88% of those surveyed felt that researchers in European countries should cooperate more with each other, and 83% believed that there should be more coordination between Member States.

"We hope that this week they [the national leaders] will take all this on board," she told The Scientist.

John Marks, director of science and strategy at the European Science Foundation, told The Scientist he agreed with that hope. "There seems to be more support for science among the public than there is at the political level," he said.

"Not only is it a good investment to spend money on research…but in addition, spending it at an EU level is cost-effective because a lot of what is happening works to reduce fragmentation."

As for how the debate at the European Council will develop, Marks said he wasn't sure. "But we definitely hope that the long-term perspective that is served by the 7th Framework Programme, and within that the European Research Council, is not drowned out by short-term economic concerns," he said.

The survey–32,000 interviews carried out in 32 European countries including candidate EU members and allied states–isn't all good news for science. The two reports show that 54% of Europeans consider food made from genetically modified organisms to be dangerous, and highlight public awareness of the negative impact of science on the environment and employment; computers and technology, people said, could cost jobs.

"There are also some important messages for all those involved in science–the European Commission, Member States, the media, and the scientific community–about how we inform the general public about what is being done," said Potočnik. "The survey shows that people are more interested, but less well informed, about science and technology than about issues such as sports and politics."

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