EC proposes budget increases for research and Erasmus+

The European Commission (EC) has called for a 30% increase in the European Union’s research budget and a doubling of the budget for Erasmus+ in its proposal for the Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-27, which it presented to the European Parliament on 2 May.

If agreed by the European Parliament and the European Council, this would bring spending on research up from €70 billion (US$84 billion) in Horizon 2020 to €100 billion (US$84 billion) in Horizon Europe – as the next Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FP9), the successor to Horizon 2020, will be called.

Members of the European Parliament were quick to praise the European Commission for earmarking a drastic increase in funds towards programmes that have been championed by the parliament, including Erasmus+, which will receive €30 billion (US$36 billion) over the seven-year funding period – compared with €15 billion in 2014-20.

By contrast, funding for agriculture and cohesion have been slashed.

The European University Association (EUA) representing more than 800 higher education institutions, welcomed the EC’s willingness to “step up investment” in research and education despite a challenging political and economic context.

But the EUA said it considered the doubling of the Erasmus+ budget “an absolute precondition to work towards the achievement of the EU’s new goals in the field, which require more European mobility and collaboration”.

Along with security and defence, education and research are one of the few areas to avoid cuts and see a proposed increase in spending in the EC’s proposal.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development for EUA, said the proposal was “a step in the right direction”. He told University World News: “Many areas have had to face cuts, but this sends the right message that education and research are areas that provide a high return on investment.”

However, he also said it was “not enough to meet all the ambitions that most likely will be put forward in the proposed Horizon Europe programme”.

The League of European Research Universities (LERU) also welcomed the proposal as an “important step in the right direction”, but said it was “not as ambitious as what was needed”. It had made a joint statement with 12 other European university associations on 21 March saying that “a doubling of the budget for research and innovation [R&I] is an absolute necessity if the EU wants to emerge as a leader in the global R&I competition”.

It is actually very difficult to evaluate the significance of the figures proposed because it is not possible to know yet what the United Kingdom will be contributing to the budget post Brexit. In theory Brexit will create a €12 billion hole in the EU’s overall finances, but the UK has indicated it would like to buy back into some parts of the EU programme – if the EU will allow it.

“The proposal obviously can’t take into account the UK as a contributor to the budget but we very much hope there will be an agreement via which the UK can participate in the research funding programme and Erasmus+,” Estermann said.

According to the EUA, the €100 billion – and possibly more if the UK will be associated to the programme and contribute to its funding – could enable a start to be made on addressing the efficiency issue that plagued Horizon 2020 and its record-low success rates.

“However, the increase is not ambitious enough to meet the combined objectives of an improved average success rate, enhanced funding for innovation and resourcing large-scale ‘missions’, among others. Indeed, this would require a full-scale doubling of the budget allocated to Horizon 2020,” the EUA said in a statement.

Biggest increase ever

LERU said the proposed research budget is about €35 billion more than Horizon 2020 when you take into account the UK contribution.

“This represents the biggest [percentage] increase ever for the FP [Framework Programme]. Especially in light of Brexit and its budgetary consequences, as well as the EU’s new priorities, the proposed increased investment in research, innovation and education by the commission is acceptable.”

LERU, which favours an association of the United Kingdom to FP9 post Brexit, said if the UK, Switzerland, Norway and Israel associate to FP9, it would effectively increase the budget to €120 billion, the amount LERU called for last year.

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities welcomed the EC's proposal as "an ambitious basis for further negotiations" but has called for the budget for Horizon Europe to be increased to €160 billion.

A study commissioned by LERU has shown that investing in universities pays off with very high returns: in 2016 LERU universities generated almost €5 of gross value added (GVA) for every €1 of income received. It was also estimated that the wider research universities sector generated €400 billion in GVA and supported 5.1 million jobs in Europe in 2016.

“With its excellent cross-border research, innovation and education, Europe has unique assets to find answers to develop the society of tomorrow, with smart and clean buildings and vehicles, with a circular economy, equipped to tackle diseases and security threats, making our society not only more competitive and sustainable, but also more resilient and inclusive. Europe’s universities educate and treasure some of the finest brains in the world and have invaluable societal impact,” LERU said.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of LERU, strongly called on the European Parliament and the member states to agree on a further increase of the budget.

Members of the European Parliament, who are expected to vote on the proposal at the end of May, responded positively to it, welcoming the new priorities, including the emphasis on research.