EU promises funding deal

As Austria takes over the European presidency, ministers vow to find agreement on research budget

By | February 2, 2006

The leaders of the European Union vowed this week that they would make it a priority to finally wrap up a deal on the region's research and development funding program--an agreement the region's scientists have been waiting months to see. Two years ago, the European Commission, which acts as the EU's executive body, made a proposal to double EU research funding and give more emphasis to basic research unfettered by political motives. Since then, however, negotiations between member countries have seen the planned increase undergo significant cuts. When discussions over the total EU budget collapsed in 2005, any agreement on the science funding program - known as Framework Programme 7 (FP7) - was also frozen. Late last year, however, an 11th-hour agreement on the overall EU budget paved the way for FP7 negotiations to move forward. With the current program (FP6) due to expire at the end of 2006, the Austrian government has vowed to use its six-month turn at the rotating EU presidency to broker a deal. In a joint statement with the Finnish presidency, which will take over from Austria for the second half of 2006, it said: "The presidencies will make every effort, in close liaison with the European Parliament, to ensure [the] timely launch of" FP7. Austrian science minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, outlined the Austrian presidency's research objectives on Tuesday at a European Parliament committee meeting. "FP7 is the main instrument for the promotion of research at EU level. A quick adoption of FP7 would be a sign that the European Union is capable of taking action and would enable researchers to improve their planning for the coming years," she said. The bad news for scientists is that the 11th hour deal hammered out by EU leaders in December will mean much tighter purse-strings than they had hoped for the duration of FP7. "This agreement is not everything that the Commission wanted," Commission president José Manuel Barroso acknowledged in December. "But we have worked very actively to help the Member States strike the best deal possible in the circumstances." The UK presidency had called for the EU's research budget to increase by 75% of its current level by 2013--from roughly 5 billion euros annually to 8.75 billion euros. However, negotiations on the budget details have not yet been finalized, leaving the research community in limbo. Much hinges on debate at the European Parliament. The parliament has scheduled its first reading of the FP7 budget for June, but given the likelihood of controversy and delay, EU research commissioner Janez Potocnik has urged the politicians to act sooner. "We are in the position that if we are to start FP7 in 2007 then we need to have everything sorted out by September or October," his spokeswoman Antonia Mochan told The Scientist. "The Commissioner has asked them to move quickly." Any significant delay could have negative consequences for many labs, said Carol Featherstone, spokeswoman for the European Life Scientist Organization. "Quite a lot of people do rely on program funding as a main source of funds in their labs and tend to carry over their projects from one program to the next," she told The Scientist. Researchers are also waiting anxiously to see what impact the budget wrangling will have on the European Research Council, which would fund basic research across the EU. "We're all on tenterhooks to see how much money the ERC will get," Featherstone said. For the biotechnology industry, timing is less important than the division of EU budgets between different research sectors. "What we are worried about is the allocation of the budget to the bio-economy and biotechnology," Adeline Farrelly from the industry group EuropaBio told The Scientist. The original proposal from the commission included generous allocations for biotech, she said. However, because the member state governments have reduced the amount the commission was asking for, there may be a reallocation of funds to different research themes, Farrelly noted. Links within this article S. Pincock," EU proposes science shake-up," The Scientist, June 16, 2004. J. Burgermeister, "EU science budget threatened," The Scientist, June 8, 2005. J. Burgermeister, "EU budget deal a blow to scientists," The Scientist, December 22, 2005. Elisabeth Gehrer Antonia Mochan ELSO X. Bosch, "Concern over ERC funding," The Scientist, July 26, 2005.

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