IRELAND: European Commission angry over cut awards

The Irish Government is in danger of losing up to EUR10m (US$14 million) a year in EU funding because it imposed pay cuts on leading university researchers who are funded entirely by Brussels.

Around 70 Marie Curie scholars, mostly from overseas, have had their awards reduced in line with cuts in salaries throughout the Irish public service. But the decision has angered the European Commission, which has accused the government of breach of contract.

The universities say they had to impose the cuts because they were not exempt from the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest No 2 Act, which reduced pay and imposed pension levies throughout the public sector.

However, Dr John Walsh, who chairs the Irish Research Staff Association, described the government's approach as nonsensical, especially as the scholars were entirely externally funded.

The pay received by the Marie Curie fellows was determined by contracts entered into by universities in line with regulations set by the commission. "Any attempt by host institutions to reduce rates of pay for Marie Curie fellows will bring such institutions into conflict with the commission in its role as contracting authority, leading to a reduction of funding or cancellation of research contracts," Walsh wrote in a letter to Science Minister Conor Lenihan.

"This situation will result in a loss of EU funding not only for individual researchers, but also for host institutions and higher education in Ireland; it will also significantly damage Ireland's international reputation for encouraging research and innovation."

The commission insists that all Marie Curie scholars throughout Europe are paid the same basic amount. "The maintenance of remuneration at the agreed rate is not an optional extra but an essential contractual requirement," it said.

As well as researchers in universities, there are about 30 other Marie Curie researchers working in industry in Ireland, but their awards have not been cut as they are doing research in the private sector. Nor have awards been cut for Marie Curie researchers in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland because it is not a publicly funded institution.

Over the past three years the scheme has been worth EUR35 million to Ireland in terms of salaries and supports for researchers, many of whom are at the cutting edge in areas such as nanomaterials, biodiversity, lung diseases and biomedical data.

The Irish Universities Association, which represents the heads of the universities, is known to be trying to resolve the problem and come up with a formula that will meet EU requirements.