Scientists protest cuts, study shows HE funding divide

As scientists across Europe campaign against “vicious” budget cuts, the European University Association published a report last Friday highlighting long-term funding cuts in a majority of countries – some as high as 40% – and an “evolving geographical divide” in terms of higher education investment that it warns is harming Europe’s global competitiveness.

Scientists in several European countries have been gearing up for protests against cuts to science budgets, as highlighted by astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martin in a column in Nature last Wednesday.

New European commissioner for research Carlos Moedas pledged greater cooperation between states. “Moedas might not have noticed, but we are already uniting: to protest against vicious budget cuts that are wrecking our scientific base and threatening our economic future,” writes Moro-Martin.

She is a Spanish astrophysicist now at the Space Telescope Science Institute in the United States and a member of the governing board of Euroscience, who made waves last year with an outspoken article in the Guardian about the slow death of science in Spain.

Colleagues from across Europe had drafted an open letter to governments and the European Parliament and Commission, saying that policy-makers and leaders of many countries had “completely lost touch with the reality of research and its contribution to the economy”.

She gives several examples, including: “Since 2009, Italy has seen the recruitment of scientists fall by 90% and the amount spent on basic research drop to nothing. In Spain, the amount of money spent on civilian research and development has dropped by 40% and fewer than 10% of researchers who retire are being replaced.”

Further, Moro-Martin writes in the Nature article: “Since 2011, the budget of Greek research centres and universities has halved, with a freeze on hiring. Already reeling from budget cuts of 50% for universities and research centres, Portugal may now have to close half of its research unites because of a flawed evaluation process.”

Growing disparities

The examples Moro-Martin uses are apt, reflecting one of the main findings of the 2014 edition of the Public Funding Observatory report of the European University Association, or EUA, published last Friday.

The observatory monitors the impact of the financial crisis and identifies public funding trends.

“The evolving geographical divide between European systems in terms of investment in higher education has also been confirmed,” said the EUA in a release. “Whilst there are notable exceptions, many countries in eastern and southern Europe still appear to be more affected by the crisis than many countries in northern and western Europe.”

This represented a “challenge for Europe as a whole, whose global competitiveness is harmed by such imbalances and weaknesses in the European Higher Education and Research Areas”.

The 2014 report was launched at an EUA Funding Forum at the University of Bergamo in Italy, along with with an interactive online tool providing updated data from 28 European higher education systems, after five new systems were added this year.

Other key findings

The past year revealed a “mixed picture” of funding across Europe. Among systems with available data, eight had an increase in nominal public funding in 2013-14 – French-speaking Belgium, Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Sweden.

In Ireland, Greece, Lithuania, Spain and the United Kingdom there had been a decrease in funding, while six systems were in the ‘stable’ category of +1% to -1% different.

When inflation was taken into account, eight countries had declines in funding in 2013-14 – Croatia, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom. Seven reported an increase – French speaking Belgium, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Sweden – and four were stable.

But the picture looked decidedly worse over time, from 2008 to 2014.10.12

Taking inflation into account, at least 12 systems had cut funding by more than 5%: Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom – “with overall cuts in some cases reaching more than 40%”.

Six countries had increased funding by more than 5% – Austria, French-speaking Belgium, Germany, Norway, Poland and Sweden – and four systems reported little change.

The EUA report stressed the importance of investing in university infrastructure, which had been a “common target” for budget cuts, or upkeep of ageing buildings and research facilities would be negatively affected, along with the student experience.

In some countries, the association said, universities were expected to supplement the shortfall with increased European funding from European Union programmes, such as Horizon 2020.

But the extent of funding cuts in some systems made this impossible, budget cuts weakened capacity to attract competitive funding – and some countries were “strongly advocating” cuts in the EU research and innovation budget.

Higher education funding should not be seen as expenditure but as an investment in Europe’s future, said the association.

“Europe’s global regional competitors are investing heavily in universities and the next generation of young people, who will be the innovators of tomorrow.”

“Increased investment in higher education and research to mobilise the potential and capacities of present and next generations of young people, therefore, is the sine qua non for Europe to exit the economic crisis and achieve future prosperity.”