The European Physical Society (EPS) has hit out at plans to remove €2.7bn from the €80bn budget of Horizon 2020 – the European Union’s main research funding programme – and use the money instead to help finance a new European Union economic-stimulus initiative. In a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker – signed by EPS president John Dudley and EPS president-elect Christophe Rossel – it warns that ignoring the “importance of research and development as key drivers of prosperity is sending the wrong message to the scientific communities who are essential for Europe’s future”.
The economic-stimulus initiative – which was announced in December last year by Juncker and is officially called the European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI) – aims to bolster weaker European economic regions and boost employment. To fund the EFSI, the Horizon 2020 budget would be cut by €70m this year, €860m in 2016, €871m in 2017, €479m in 2018, €150m in 2019 and €270m in 2020. Among the biggest losers would be the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in Budapest with total cuts of €350m, while the European Research Council (ERC), which gives grants to individual researchers, would have its funds slashed by €221m.
Juncker has sought to ease concerns among researchers by saying that the EFSI investments will also benefit research. While the European Commission has stated it would like the EFSI to become operational in the coming months, the plan still needs official approval from the European Parliament and the European Council. The EPS letter to Juncker, dated 16 February, does not directly ask Junker to reconsider his plan to divert Horizon 2020 money to the EFSI but hints at the political implications, noting that the EPS comprises 42 member societies spanning Europe and represents the interests of 130,000 physicists. “We urge you to send a clear signal to the scientific community of your continued commitment to supporting scientific research and co-operation in Europe,” the letter says.
The letter also highlights the benefits physics plays to the European economy by employing 15.4 million people across the continent in 2010 and generating €3800bn in turnover. The EPS is particularly concerned about cuts to the ERC budget, saying it would lead to the axing of as many as 150 ERC grants, which would remove funds for 150 European scientists. “This loss of support will lead to a decline in Europe’s capacity to attract top-rank researchers and compete on a global scale,” the letter states.
Several other scientific and academic organizations have also either written letters of protest to Juncker or issued public statements, including the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences, the League of European Research Universities and the European University Association.
Rüdiger Voss, head of international relations at CERN, told physicsworld.com that the European Parliament “can only accept or reject the EFSI as a whole”, noting that it would be difficult to reduce or remove the specific cuts to Horizon 2020. “Science is the ultimate driver of innovation and economic development, with a much larger multiplicative effect than direct investments to stimulate the economy,” he says. “It may appear short-sighted to divert significant funds from Horizon 2020 to the EFSI.”
Ove Poulsen, a retired optical physicist at Aarhus University in Denmark who was president of the EPS from 2005 to 2007, says it is hard to gauge the potential negative effects of the cuts on physics research. “Noting the central role of the physical sciences in emerging technology development, in problem solving of a societal nature and a growing impact in future energy scenarios, the proposed cuts surely will be felt by the European physics community,” he says.