Jean-Pierre Bourguignon is angry. The mathematician is interim president of the European Research Council (ERC) and is outraged by proposals to cut the agency’s budget by 1.3 billion euros (1.5 billion US dollars) for 2021-27, a reduction of almost 10 percent compared to the 14th century .7 billion proposed by the European Commission in 2018. “I don’t get it,” he said nature. He wants to reverse the decision. We also.
The EU has seen more than 2.5 million cases of the coronavirus, killing more than 142,000 people – out of 925,000 worldwide. At a time like this, you might think that the continent’s heads of state and government would like to strengthen the ERC, whose grant recipients are key to understanding SARS-CoV-2, combating COVID-19 and rebuilding societies and economies during and are and will be after the pandemic. But the leaders plan to cut back.
The ERC, founded in 2007, is Europe’s most important funding agency for basic research. It’s investigator driven, and the benefits are showing. While politicians were slow or too late to anticipate and react to the pandemic, 180 existing ERC projects have turned out to be very relevant to the crisis. ERC investigators are ahead of the curve.
The Council’s greatest difficulty is that its fortunes are linked to those of the larger EU research and innovation funding program, Horizon Europe. Both budgets had increased in previous years. But now the pandemic is ravaging economies, and with the UK no longer in the EU, its contribution will be missing.
In 2018, the European Commission hit 94.1 billion.But in July of this year, EU leaders reduced that amount to 81 billion euros, including a 5 billion euros fund for COVID-related research. As a result, the ERC’s budget is also being cut, although it is believed that little of the additional funding will go to the types of work the ERC supports, such as developing models to track virus transmission, researching technologies for deployment in the diagnostics and studies of human behavior in a pandemic.
The other challenge facing the ERC is that the returns from basic research to society are not always immediately apparent to policy-makers – especially when compared to the returns from other parts of the Horizon Europe budget, such as those involved in climate science, cancer research and support commercial partnerships.
Securing funding for basic research in times of budget cuts is enormously difficult for any research institution, but a turbulent six-month period for managing the ERC has made it even more difficult.
In April, the agency’s then president, nanoscientist Mauro Ferrari, stepped down after three months in office, just as the agency needed to strengthen its support coalition ahead of budget discussions. Former President Bourguignon returned on an interim basis on July 27, days after the crucial meeting of EU leaders to propose budget cuts.
The ERC is considered to be outstanding by the standards of the basic research institutes. According to the latest evaluation report, almost a fifth of the projects report a breakthrough and more than half lead to major scientific progress (see go.nature.com/3iyhn9i). Some countries – Poland in particular – have even redesigned the granting of grants to reflect the ERC’s approach.
Approximately 25% of all patents submitted by projects supported by Horizon 2020 come from ERC projects, although commercializing the research is not the agency’s main objective. Bourguignon and his colleagues rightly argue that many advances in basic research ultimately contribute to innovation and benefit society. However, this is a difficult message at a time of scarce resources and competing priorities.
Winds of Change
The ERC has also been hit by the wider political cross winds of Europe. In the previous budget periods it had the support of research and finance ministers from the three largest economies in Europe: Germany, France and Great Britain. But the UK has left the EU; and Germany is unable to provide its usual strong public support for the time being. Since July it has held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, the EU body that represents the governments of the member states. The Federal Research Ministry said in a statement that it supported the ERC, but could not take a position in budget negotiations.
Nevertheless, the ERC receives strong support from the European Parliament, from the smaller EU countries as well as from leading representatives from research and universities. Because of this, Bourguignon is right to bring his case directly to these constituencies for support, which is what he did. But time is of the essence: the budget should be ready this month.
The ERC is a rare success story in multilateral research funding. His generous start-up grants have had a lasting impact on the quality of research in Europe. It has helped more seasoned scientists mature as researchers and mentor new talent. This talent is needed to cope with today’s crises – and tomorrow’s too.
For their campaign to be successful, the ERC and its supporters need the research community and politicians across Europe to stand up, especially with EU member states’ finance ministries. France and Germany have supported the ERC from the start. Now is not the time to water down that support for an agency that will be essential to a post-COVID future.