Plan to double EU research spending

Commission approves budget hike, but some expect member states to trim the increase

Apr 8, 2005
Ned Stafford(scientistnews@yahoo.com)

The European Commission, the European Union's executive body, has formally adopted a proposed science program that would lift EU research spending in 2007–2013 to a total of €67.8 billion (USD $87 billion), double the current level. But observers of the EU research scene expect the commission's proposals will be reduced, perhaps significantly, before gaining final approval.

Frédéric Sgard, vice president of Euroscience, told The Scientist that the European Parliament probably will end up approving all, or most of, the €67.8 billion. But he said the proposed program will hit strong opposition in the council of EU member states from several nations that are net contributors to the EU budget.

Negotiations on the financial plan for 2007–2013 will continue throughout 2005, and final adoption of detailed legislation is expected by the end of the year.

Sgard said that Germany, which is facing a federal deficit crisis of its own, will be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the current proposal. Other nations who might want cuts could be the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Speaking of the proposed €67.8 billion budget, he said: "I do not think they will get all of it."

That view was echoed by Christoph Mühlberg, head of the German Research Foundation's section for International Cooperation, Western Europe, who told The Scientist he believes the commission's spending proposal could end up being cut to as low as €40–50 billion (USD $51.3–64.1 billion). "Anything above €60 billion [USD $77 billion] would be very, very good," he said.

Sgard said that if the proposed budget is cut significantly by the member states council, the commission will face some tough choices as to which areas in the program to scale back or even kill.

The commission's proposed plan, the Seventh EU Research Framework Programme 2007–2013, was unveiled Thursday (April 7) at a press conference in Brussels by Janez Potočnik, European commissioner for science and research.

The general outline of the proposal, including the European Commission's desire to double research spending, has been known since the summer of 2004. But for the first time, the commission gave a detailed breakdown of the plan.

The budget is broken down into four main areas, with the largest being "Cooperation," which would receive a total of €39.3 billion (USD $50.4 billion) in 2007–2013. The cooperation area is divided into nine themes, one of which is health, receiving a proposed €7.4 billion (USD $9.5 billion), and another biotech, food, and agriculture, receiving €2.2 billion (USD $2.8 billion).

A second main spending area was dubbed "Ideas," with the objective being to strengthen scientific excellence by fostering competition at the European level. This area would receive €10.5 billion (USD $13.5 billion) for creation of an autonomous European Research Council.

A third area is titled "People," which would receive €6.3 billion (USD $8.1 billion) toward the goal of reinforcing career prospects and mobility for researchers through such programs as Marie Curie Actions.

The final main area is titled "Capacities," with the objective being to enhance research and innovation capacity. This area would receive €6.6 billion.

Two other expenditures included in the €67.8 billion budget are €1.6 billion (USD $2.1 billion) for the Joint Research Centre and an estimated €4.2 billion (USD $5.4 billion) for the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

Sgard and others who spoke with The Scientist are particularly pleased that the European Commission has embraced the idea of a European Research Council after initially opposing the initiative.

Sgard said the commission's plan does contain some weak points. He thinks "Cooperation" spending (€39.3 billion [USD $50.3 billion]) is too much compared with proposed spending for the "Ideas" (€10.5 billion [USD $13.5 billion]) area. He thinks "Ideas" spending should account for as much as one third of the combined total, instead of the current one fifth. "We want more ideas from the scientific community getting support," he said.

In announcing its proposals, the European Commission promised a significant simplification of its operation, which would be a welcome development, according to Sgaard and others.

Sgard said that under the current Sixth EU Research Framework Programme, only around 5% of applications submitted for funding are approved. This means that a lot of scientists are wasting time applying for grants that will never come, he said. The commission needs to issue clearer criteria and guidelines so scientists can better able determine the chances of success before getting involved in the applications process.

Carol Featherstone, spokeswoman for the European Life Scientist Organization (ELSO), told The Scientist: "The problem at the moment is that the bureaucracy is a complete nightmare," she said, adding that the application process is extremely complicated.

Featherstone said her biggest concern was that if a substantial EU spending increase for research is approved, some national governments then might feel they can reduce domestic research spending. "We definitely do not want research spending simply shifted from one pot to another," she said.