MEPs bid to double Framework Programme budget to €100 billion (Science|Business)


Peter Koekoek, Science|Business (see article here)

A group of MEPs working on plans for the EU's overall budget from 2014 are pushing for a big boost - to as much as €100 billion - for the next EU research programme, as Maria Da Graça Carvalho, Member of the European Parliament tells Science|Business

Six MEPs are urging the committee charged with drawing up the European Parliament's position on the EU budget from 2014 - 2020 for a near-doubling of spending on research and innovation, from the €52.5 billion funding available under the current Framework Programme 7 (FP7) to €100 billion.

The demand comes in the form of a motion submitted within the EU Parliament's Policy Challenges Committee (more usually referred to as the SURE committee). SURE was set up in July 2010 with a one year mandate to prepare the Parliament's common position on how and where Europe should spend its money in the next five year budget cycle beginning in 2014.

Such a hefty budget request could meet a frosty reception in Europe's current political climate - and indeed, in December several European leaders sent a letter to Commission President Barroso urging budgetary restraint. British Prime Minister David Cameron said at the time, "All around Europe, countries are tightening their belts to deal with their deficits. Europe cannot be immune from that. We want to see real budgetary restraint for 2014-20." The letter was also signed by the German, French, Dutch and Finnish leaders.

But Maria Da Graça Carvalho, a former Barroso aide and one of the MEPs lobbying for the increase, thinks the role of R&D and innovation in creating jobs and growth means there is broad support in the Parliament for increasing the budget for Framework Programme 8 (FP8), saying, "There seems to be a consensus that the budget needs to be increased."

Compromise is likely

Carvalho, an influential Portuguese member of the European Parliament's committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) and a substitute member of the SURE committee, acknowledges that in the end a doubling of the current budget may be difficult. But she is hoping - at least - to be able to maintain the recent ramp-up in funding, currently running at a rate of €10 billion a year.  "I expect that in the end the new FP8 budget will be €70 billion. It will be a compromise because people within the Parliament, Commission and Council also want an increase in other policy areas."

The motion to increase R&D spending in FP8 was submitted by a group of six European People's Party MEPs, which apart from Carvalho are German members Christian Ehler and Angelika Niebler, Czech member Jan Březina, Danish member Bendt Bendtsen and Spanish member Pilar Del Castillo Vera. The SURE Committee is set to vote on the proposal by the end of May. The European Parliament as a whole will then vote on the overall budget plan during its plenary session in June.

Although the battle for funding of FP8 has already begun, the current FP7 scheme still has three years to go. Carvalho believes changes are needed to bring FP7 into line with new economic circumstances. "We have two or three years to go, and these are very important years for Europe because we are recovering from the economic crisis. FP7 was designed before the crisis arrived: some of the priorities should be changed," Carvalho says.

Spend FP7 money on scientists, not equipment

Dealing with rising levels of unemployment among young scientists is one area where FP7 could help Europe to overcome the downturn, says Carvalho, who has experience in this field as a former minister of Science, Innovation and Higher Education in Portugal. Beneficiaries of Framework funding could be required to spend a larger percentage of their grant money on staff, instead of lab equipment.

"Some universities do most of the research with their own staff, and they use Framework money mainly to buy equipment," Carvalho notes. "We should make an effort to hire as much as we can. I implemented this as a minister in Portugal, with good result. If you increase from [spending] an average of 40 per cent on labour costs, to 70 - or 75 per cent you have an impact," she says.

Another call to simplify grant rules

Carvalho also believes is vital to make it easier to apply for funding in these turbulent economic times, saying the European Commission shouldn't restrict moves to simplify the system to FP8. "The changes that don't require a change in the financial regulation should be included in the revision of FP7. What the Commission has announced is not enough," she says. As former advisor to Barroso, Carvalho has long been a champion of simplification and previously served as a rapporteur on this topic for the Parliament's ITRE committee.

If the policy priorities of the Commission have changed over the last few years, so should the way that money is spent on research and innovation, concludes Carvalho noting, "FP7 was designed before some of the current priorities like energy and climate change rose to the top of the agenda."

The ITRE committee is set to vote on the report on the FP7 mid-term review, which includes many of Carvalho's recommendations, next week (12 April).