Published on 20 November 2018

Martin Andler, professor emeritus at the mathematics laboratory in Versailles (National Centre for Scientific Research - CNRS/Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines), explains the importance of a significant budget in enhancing research and innovation in Europe.

The European Union (EU) is currently preparing its budget for 2021-2027, including for research and innovation. The European Commission’s proposal for the research and innovation budget, put forward in June, is not bad at all: almost €100 billion over seven years, which is higher than before, despite the lack of a contribution from the United Kingdom. However, it is far lower than the amount suggested in a report drafted by the group chaired by Pascal Lamy, tasked by the Commission with proposing a target. Furthermore, it is still only a proposal. The deliberations of the European Parliament and, especially, the budgetary discussions with member countries, are still to come, and offer no reason for optimism. The final budget could suffer from the mercantile haggling that usually ensues from European negotiations.

However, even if the initial budget were accepted, would it be equal to the challenge?

In a time of Brexit, the rise of the populist far right, the refugee crisis and fake news, it is not irrelevant to worry about research and innovation policies. Admittedly, research would not solve the serious problems faced by our societies in one wave of a magic wand. It would, however, contribute to solutions. Climate change, food quality, health, new energies, cybersecurity, migration issues… Who could imagine, for one second, that we could make any progress without the contributions of research, in every field, from “hard” science to human and social sciences?

The EU must continue to innovate

Also at stake is the EU’s place in the world. The EU’s spending on research and development (2% of GDP) is far lower than that of Israel (4.3%), Korea (4.2%), Japan (3.1%) and the United States (2.8%). Moreover, the latest data shows that China now spends more than the EU in both percentage and volume. The illusion of a new division of labour in which the western states control innovative industries that have a higher added value, benefitting from the contributions of research, while emerging countries make do with mass production, has been particularly persistent.

The Commission’s research and innovation programme for 2021-2027, entitled “Horizon Europe”, is not only a financial matter. It sets out a policy in which economic competitiveness plays a major role, relying on three “pillars”: fundamental research, major societal challenges and industrial competitiveness and, finally, innovation. While the scientific community agrees that Europe’s capacity to develop its industrial and innovative capabilities should be strengthened, it considers that the proposed mechanisms would benefit from improvements.

The most important point for the research community is the funding of fundamental research, which is to represent 25% of the budget. The European Research Council, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary, has been an incredible success, particularly because its funding allocation procedures are based on the single criterion of scientific quality. The Marie‑Sklodowska-Curie programme provides thousands of researchers, PhD students, post‑PhD students and experienced professionals with funding. As well as promoting research in general, it facilitates the wide dissemination of scientific quality in Europe, fostering a true European spirit.

Increasing spending on research and development

The EU should step up its total spending on research and development. That mainly depends on national budgets, because the community proportion is still under 10%. Member countries, including France, should spend more. However, the EU should send a strong message by allocating the necessary resources to research and innovation. In these negotiations, countries such as France and Germany have a crucial role to play in decisively supporting the EU’s course of action.

The scientific community, and, more broadly speaking, all who are interested in the development of knowledge, are rallying around the total budget, its distribution and the programmes that are to be funded. The Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE), a non-profit organisation gathering a number of European institutions and learned societies, together with Euroscience and its other members, launched a petition requesting that the budget be increased to €160 billion, rather than the €100 billion proposed by the Commission.

The petition has already been signed by thousands of researchers, including some major European scientists. French signatories include Claude Cohen‑Tannoudji (Physics Nobel prizewinner, 1997), Serge Haroche (Physics Nobel prizewinner, 2012), Jules Hoffmann (Medecine Nobel prizewinner, 2011), Jean‑Marie Lehn (Chemistry Nobel prizewinner, 1987), Jean‑Pierre Sauvage (Chemistry Nobel prizewinner, 2016), Yves Meyer (Abel prizewinner, 2017) and Alain Connes (Fields medallist, 1982). Other organisations such as the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and the European University Association (EUA) also support the request for a higher budget. While the EU’s founding values are threatened outside its borders, whether in the United States or China, and even within, we are not resigned to its sidelining.

Martin Adler is a professor emeritus at the mathematics laboratory in Versailles (National Centre for Scientific Research - CNRS/Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines).

The original version of this article was published in French on The Conversation.