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A Rocky Start

Blog • Politics • Professor John Bell FBA

In this blog Professor Bell provides his perspective on two issues related to the research community that have arisen with the start of the term of the new European Commission on 1st November 2014.

The new European Commission headed by President Jean-Claude Juncker has now been in post for six weeks and although it is still getting its feet under the table there have been some worrying signs for the research community.

Firstly, news filtered out within the first fortnight that President Juncker was not going to continue the position of Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission currently filled by Professor Anne Glover CBE FRSE. The Commission seemed unprepared for how the news came out and only offered limited laconic guidance for the community on what would happen next. A Commission spokesperson saying, in effect, President Juncker believes in science advice but does not know what to do with it as yet, does not exactly warm the heart that President Juncker values the research community and the critical role it can play in policymaking.

The position of Chief Scientific Adviser is not a common one across EU Member States and thus Professor Glover’s appointment has always been seen as something that the UK and Ireland have been particularly keen on. That though is belied by the strength of feeling expressed across the EU following the news and which was on show at a conference on 3rd December in Brussels which had Professor Glover alongside other Commission speakers. Science advice is important to policymaking whether that be through a Chief Scientific Adviser or some other means. What the Commission seems to have decided is that it is not important enough to determine how to continue it at the current time. Considering the strides that have been made in recent years in terms of science advice in Brussels, and the long path still to go, that is deeply dispiriting.

Evidence-based policymaking is key to raising the trust, and strengthening the understanding, between the European Union in Brussels and the people across each of the twenty-eight Member States. Turning one’s back on that when President Juncker’s priorities include democratic change with an understanding that trust in the European project is at a historic low would seem, at best, self-defeating.

Secondly, at the end of last month President Juncker announced (an actual announcement rather than the news seeping out) an investment plan for Europe. It is widely agreed that driving sustainable economic growth and prosperity is key to tackling the challenges the EU is currently facing, such as unemployment and inequality. Unfortunately President Juncker proposed taking €2.7 billion fromHorizon 2020, the EU’s research and innovation programme, in order to finance this plan. Interestingly, the new Commissioner for Research, Science & Innovation, Carlos Moedas stated in front of the European Parliament a week later that Horizon 2020’s involvement in the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) was a ‘must’. This was because Horizon 2020 contributes to jobs and as the EFSI is trying to do the same then they had complementary aims (although being different too at other points in his presentation) and thus Horizon 2020’s funds had to be used. To say that is not exactly convincing would be putting it lightly. Surely if Horizon 2020 is contributing successfully to the aim of driving sustainable economic growth and prosperity you would look for other areas to find funding from rather than to take away this success? Particularly when the lists of projects that are being put forward for the EFSI by Member States look like a Who’s Who of activity already under way or on the back burner (if not having been found in the depths of the drawer). Strategic this is not.

This has understandably caused an outcry including from the British Academy and the All European Academies.

It is difficult to see how taking money from Horizon 2020 will help to complete the objective the European Council set out in June this year: “the first purpose of the Union’s work over the coming years must be to equip our societies for the future and to foster confidence”. Research and innovation is a vital resource in developing the foundations for sustainable growth and prosperity, which are critical in driving job creation and economic recovery.

As the President of the All European Academies concludes:

“Horizon 2020 is an absolutely key European instrument for investing in research and innovation. It is fundamental to the research capabilities of Member States, by developing their knowledge and skills base: the foundations of our future economy and society. The Horizon 2020 budget is already under pressure, with vastly increased demand and lower budget available in 2014 for key areas than the preceding year. In our view, decreasing this budget further in an area already agreed as a priority is not the way to proceed in order to achieve sustainable growth and prosperity.

“In addition, two parts of Horizon 2020 are critical to my mind. First, the European Research Council is the flagship European research initiative, which has firmly placed us on the world map as a leader of frontier research across the scientific disciplines, and crucially, that includes the social sciences and humanities. Secondly, European research funding for the social sciences and humanities through Horizon 2020 needs reinforcement not reductions, if we Europeans are to drive innovation and creativity, to deal with the unexpected, and to strengthen our understanding of the multiple challenges that we face today which require far more than only technical solutions.”

Let us hope that the European Council meeting on 18-19 December can set the Commission back onto the right road and smoothen its rocky start with the research community. Yes, research and innovation must be part of the EFSI, because of the knowledge, understanding, and entrepreneurship it can bring, not because it is a resource for funds through Horizon 2020.