Science & Environment

EC funds switch 'good for science'

Carlos Moedas Image copyright EC
Image caption Carlos Moedas is a banker and a politician by background but also trained as a civil engineer

Taking money out of Europe's research budget for a special economic stimulus plan will end up boosting science, argues Commissioner Carlos Moedas.

Universities and other institutes have been highly critical of an EC proposal to divert 2.7bn euros (£2.0bn) from the Horizon 2020 programme into a new 21bn-euro Strategic Investment Fund.

But Mr Moedas believes it is science that will ultimately benefit.

The new fund would be targeted at innovation sectors, he said.

"This is about increasing the firepower of Horizon 2020, not diminishing it," the research commissioner told BBC News.

"The European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI) is for high-risk, high-return projects. And high risk, high return means science, innovation, digital and the knowledge economy."

Scientific elite

Mr Moedas was meeting British journalists on his first trip to London since taking office.

Just five months into the job, he is having to deal with two thorny issues.

One concerns EC President Jean-Claude Juncker's idea to invigorate the flagging EU economy with a stimulus package.

Various areas of the EU budget are making a contribution, but it is the money being taken from Horizon 2020 that has exercised the scientific community.

Sir Paul Nurse from the UK's Royal Society recently penned a letter to Mr Juncker - signed by 26 other Nobel Laureates - that was sharply critical of the move.

The correspondence stated that if the money was transferred, it would send out a message that "Europe is not the place to do high level science".

And the laureates are by no means the only ones raising their voices on this topic.

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Media captionCommissioner Carlos Moedas: "We will increase the firepower of Horizon 2020"

But Mr Moedas argued that the multipliers achieved by the EFSI would eventually see the "science pie" increase over time.

"That fund will attract private money; it will attract loans. And so, you will multiply the 2.7bn euros to a bigger amount. We will get more value for each euro invested," he said.

The commissioner stressed that science's contribution amounted to just 3% of its overall budget. And he reminded reporters that the research budget as a whole had increased markedly in recent years.

Horizon 2020 is worth some 80bn euros up to the end of the decade - a 30% increase on the previous Framework 7 Programme, as it was known.

The metrics would be there at the end of the Horizon 2020 period to show whether the multipliers had materialised, Mr Moedas said: "Judge us."

The Commission wants the European Parliament and the European Council to approve the investment fund by June so that it can start to be deployed this summer.

Outside advice

June is also the deadline for the other difficult issue in Mr Moedas' inbox – the matter of scientific advice within the EC.

Previous Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, had appointed Scottish biologist Prof Anne Glover as Brussels' first ever chief scientific adviser, in 2012.

But her role was controversially abolished when Mr Juncker became president in November.

Mr Moedas said Prof Glover was "an excellent scientist who had done an excellent job", but that the Commission was now looking to "improve" the machinery used to receive scientific feedback on policy.

"Mr Juncker has asked me to look for a mechanism that will work in the setting of the European Commission," Mr Moedas explained.

"We already have a lot of scientific advice in-house. We have high-level groups of experts, such as the Joint Research Centre. Now, we have to get independent scientific advice. There are different models out there. The UK is one, but there are others."

'Funding raid'

Mr Moedas said he would bring forward his proposals shortly.

The research commissioner met with Sir Paul Nurse during his visit to London.

Sir Paul told the BBC: "Commissioner Moedas is committed to doing what is in the best interests of science across the EU.

"I hope that he can bring that perspective to bear on the discussions about a way forward on funding the EFSI that does not sell out the science base.

"There appears to be a growing groundswell of support for protecting science from any raids on funding and the European Parliament is at the forefront of that.

"The Commission needs to show that it listens and that it recognises the central role of research and innovation to long term sustainable economic growth."

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