The scientific council of the European Research Council (ERC) has criticised the EU’s proposal to shrink the budget for Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation programme. 

The council released its statement in response to EU Council president Charles Michel’s announcement on 10 July, which proposed a budget of €89.4 billion (in 2018 prices; £79.5 billion) for the period 2021–2027. If agreed, this figure would, in real terms, mean no rise to the EU’s core research and innovation budget for the first time ever. ‘To keep the budget so static, seems to us to be a retrograde step,’ says Janet Thornton, ERC vice president for life sciences. ‘This flies in the face of what European leaders have been saying, that the way Europe will maintain productivity and competitiveness is through research and innovation.’

In 2017, the expert group set up to advise on EU research investment published its report recommending that the research budget should be doubled, indicating at least €120 billion for Horizon Europe. Then in 2018 the European Commission proposed a budget of €83.5 billion. At the beginning of this year, the figure was revised to €80.9 billion, which was subsequently bolstered in May with an expected €13.5 billion from the Covid-19 recovery fund for a total of €94.4 billion (all relative to 2018). The latest proposal removes €5 billion from that figure and has prompted the ERC’s scientific council to express disbelief that European leaders would agree to a further reduction, while at the same time relying on Europe’s researchers to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research associations and universities have also expressed concerns about the future of R&D in the EU. The secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities Kurt Deketelaere described the decision as a ‘complete disgrace’ that disregards the value of EU investment in research and innovation. He warns against a ‘breach of trust between the academic and the political world,’ as cuts to research funding stand in contrast to months of ‘daily political rhetoric’ in support of research and innovation.

Thornton notes that the current success rate for ERC grant applications averages around 12–13%, but says 20% would be more appropriate. ‘We have a lot of applications that score top marks but we cannot afford to fund them because we don’t have the budget,’ she explains. Cuts to the ERC would translate into fewer grants.

Ministers of state met on Friday 17 July in Brussels to discuss the proposed future budget and size of the Covid-19 recovery fund – the Commission would be empowered to borrow up to €750 billion. The UK government is not involved in these talks and the UK’s future participation in Horizon Europe and the ERC remain unclear.

The UK’s exit has also prompted the so-called frugal four – Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden – to advocate for a smaller budget for a smaller union. ‘These are four strong countries in research and innovation,’ notes Deketelaere. ‘They don’t say they want less money for research, but they should be aware that their whole positioning is leading to that.’

Update: On 20 July, EU leaders agreed the proposed budget of €75.9 billion for Horizon Europe, and an additional €5 billion from the recovery fund.