EUROPE: EU plans historic rise in research funding

The European Commission has proposed an historic adjustment to its research and innovation policies with a view to stimulating economic growth and shoring up the competitiveness of the European Union. The plans include a EUR30 billion (US$40 billion) increase in funding and a 16-fold rise in the number of higher education students being supported in their training.

Under the proposed Horizon 2020 programme for 2014-20, announced last week, Brussels has set out budgets totalling EUR80 billion (US$108 billion) to push forward the EU's scientific and research strategies against the background of a difficult and dramatically changing economic environment.

The sums dwarf anything the EU has spent on research before, and may even challenge spending by the US, Japan and other research-oriented countries in some sectors. The current 2007-13 seventh framework programme is spending EUR50 billion.

But perhaps even more significant is the way in which, as the EU commissioner for research Máire Geoghegan-Quinn put it, Horizon 2020 "provides direct stimulus to the economy and secures our science and technology base and industrial competitiveness for the future".

Introducing the programme this week, she said it focused more than ever on turning scientific breakthroughs into innovative products and services that provided business opportunities and changed people's lives for the better.

"At the same time it drastically cuts red tape, with simplification of rules and procedures to attract more top researchers and a broader range of innovative businesses," the commissioner said.

In broad terms Horizon 2020, which the EU has given the acronym H2020, will provide a dedicated science budget of EUR24.6 billion, including a 77% increase in funding for the European Research Council (ERC).

There will be a budget of EUR17.9 billion for industrial leadership in innovation including an investment of EUR13.7 billion in key technologies, while EUR31.7 billion will be devoted to the major European concerns of health, food, sustainable agriculture, marine research and the bio-economy, energy, transport, resource efficiency and climate action among other things.

Dennis Abbott, commission spokesperson for education and culture, stressed to University World News that the EUR2.8 billion being allocated to the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) would contribute to higher education throughout the EU.

Created in 2008, the EIT has already sponsored 1,500 students "and we want to increase this again in the next decade until 2020", she said. The current target was for the EIT to help train 25,000 higher education students, including 10,000 PhD students, in research, technology and innovation, Abbott said.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), an association of 21 leading research-intensive universities including Oxford and Cambridge, said H2020 could make "a major contribution to the whole set of research activities".

He said LERU was pleased to see that the existing model for ERC grants would now be used for almost all H2020 research projects.

"A reimbursement of 100% of direct costs will mean a true simplification for the participants, not only for the administrators handling the budget but also, and very importantly, for the principal investigators," he said.

It would facilitate the financial sustainability of university participation in H2020.

"The new rules should enable universities to recruit staff specifically to work on H2020 projects and thus enhance and build up the next generation of researchers in Europe," said Deketelaere.

He regretted, however, that cost declaration through full costing would not be possible anymore, noting that "a number of universities have put a lot of effort in moving to full costing".

He hoped that this would not discourage universities from using full costing for internal management and organisational purposes, because this "contributes significantly to the modernisation of Europe's higher education".

Overall, the H2020 programme will require the support of the EU Council of Ministers - that is, the approval of the 27 EU member countries - as well as the European parliament, before coming into effect and a lengthy struggle to get budget approval for all lines can be anticipated.