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Science fund cuts could hurt EU recovery, scientists warn

Cutting science funding in the European Union would threaten economic recovery in the bloc, the heads of scientific organisations said on Friday after such cuts were proposed.
/ Source: Reuters

LONDON (Reuters) - Cutting science funding in the European Union would threaten economic recovery in the bloc, the heads of scientific organisations said on Friday after such cuts were proposed.

"We believe it would be deeply damaging to future economic growth if we were to cut funding now," Andrew Harrison, director general of Grenoble-based neutron research centre the Institut Laue-Langevin, told Reuters.

EU leaders on Friday abandoned talks to find a deal on the bloc's budget for 2014-2020 but European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who chaired the summit, proposed cuts in a number of areas, including research and innovation, in an effort to reach a deal.

According to a document seen by Reuters, Van Rompuy's proposal penciled in a 139.5 billion euro ($180.8 billion) budget under the competitiveness-for-growth heading, which includes the EU's flagship Horizon 2020 research funding program.

This is a further cut from a Van Rompuy proposal earlier this week of 152 billion euros and down sharply from an original Commission proposal of 164 billion euros.

Although it is unclear if there would be any knock-on effect from the proposed cuts on Horizon 2020 when talks resume early next year, the original budget for the research program was 80 billion euros, roughly half the original pot.

European scientists, whose funding is already under pressure from the economic downturn, will be alarmed at the prospect of cuts to one of the biggest science budgets in the world.

Harrison, of the Grenoble-based research centre, joined in a lobbying effort with seven other world-leading research organisations calling on the Commission to defend science funding ahead of the budget summit.

In a letter to Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso that was also signed by Rolf Heuer, director general of the CERN research centre near Geneva, the organisations warned that science should be central to Europe's long-term prosperity.

"At a time when a return to growth is the most pressing policy priority across Europe, it is absolutely vital that investment in our scientific resources (both human and technical) is sustained," they said.

The signatories also included Iain Mattaj, head of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory; Alvaro Gimenez Canete, director of science and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency and Tim de Zeeuw, head of the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

"We are all world leading in our fields," said Harrison. "We are cautioning very strongly against cuts now."

Long-term benefits
Harrison said that although researchers needed to do a better job in demonstrating the economic value of research, there was no doubt about the long-term benefits of investment in science.

"Europe is not going to compete in the mass labour market or in natural resources, we are only going to compete because we are smarter," he said. "Right now I'm not fantastically confident."

Van Rompuy's proposal earmarked nearly 13 billion euros for specific projects, including Galileo, the European replacement for the Global Positioning System satellite network, and the ITER nuclear fusion research project.

But Horizon 2020 will be the mainstay of EU research grants and the implications for the funding program remain unclear.

"Science isn't going to die if they don't implement Horizon 2020 fully," said Bruno Leibundgut, director for science at ESO. "But these countries are going to suffer from this five or 10 years down the line."

($1 = 0.7717 euros)

(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor and Charlie Dunmore in Brussels; Editing by Michael Roddy)