EUA warns of research funds squeeze after EFSI vote

The European University Association, or EUA, fears that last week's decision by the European Parliament to formally adopt the European Union European Fund for Strategic Investments, or EFSI, and divert EU research funding to EFSI’s budgets will mean a squeeze on other earmarked funds for collaborative research by universities and other research bodies.

The parliament voted on 24 June to confirm that the guarantee for the fund will be financed via the reallocation of resources originally dedicated to the EU’s core research spending programme Horizon 2020 and the Connecting Europe Facility financing infrastructure projects.

In effect, said the EUA, the agreed compromise on research funding means €2.2 billion (US$2.5 billion) of Horizon 2020 spending will be reallocated to EFSI, down from €2.7 billion in earlier proposals.

The EUA said that although fundamental research was not affected by the establishment of the EFSI – because earlier proposals to divert funding from the European Research Council and the EU’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions budget had been dropped – collaborative research “remains gravely hit by the cuts".

The EUA "deeply regrets the signal that is being sent to the research community in this regard, and recalls the importance of university research for Europe’s overall economic recovery", it said.

In a statement, the association said that on behalf of Europe’s universities, it would hold EU institutions and member states to promises made during the debates on EFSI to mitigate the cuts by “making the most extensive use of available margins in the EU budget each year, with the view to relieve the pressure on Horizon 2020 resources”.

A second draft EU budget for 2016 that the European Commission is expected to release soon “will constitute a first test," it said.

Enora Bennetot Pruvot, programme manager for governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA, told University World News the agreement meant that the cuts of €500 million (US$558 million) would follow the original distribution proposed by the European Commission "which means the largest cuts will affect [Horizon 2020’s] ‘Pillar Three’” which funds “a lot of projects… in the form of collaborative research".

This included studies into societal challenges such as climate change “where projects often involved international teams from different institutions, not just university consortia", she said. It was one of the parts of Horizon 2020 where the universities were most active and typically there were a large number of universities participating, she said. Horizon 2020, as originally approved was to spend around €80 billion (US$89 billion) in research by 2020.

Lucia Caudet, European Commission spokesperson for research, said: "We've always been adamant that [the EFSI agreement] is good news for research and even in the final compromise that has been adopted we've made sure to protect even further fundamental research."

Meanwhile, Portuguese centre-right Member of the European Parliament, or MEP, José Manuel Fernandes, the co-rapporteur of the legislation within the parliament claimed that the European Parliament had "strengthened the credibility and trust” of the new development fund, giving it "an irrevocable and unconditional character". MEPs had also reduced the impact on the Horizon 2020 and Connecting Europe Facility, he said.

Co-rapporteur German socialist MEP Udo Bullmann claimed that the agreement "could be an important step towards closing the investment gap in Europe and is an opportunity for growth and employment. Sustainable investment is a key way to break with the current economic trend and fight recession and mass unemployment," he said.

But the chair of the European Parliament's budgets committee, Jean Arthuis, said it was "deeply regrettable that the Commission and the national governments, obsessed as they are by the narrow 'juste retour' [political quid pro quo] logic, propose to finance the Juncker plan at the expense of parts of the EU budget that are genuinely European and transnational".