LONDON – Research and health emerged as the biggest losers following a marathon four days of negotiations by EU leaders on the bloc’s €1.1 trillion (US$1.3 trillion) 2021 - 2027 budget and the formation of a €750 billion (US$872 billion) pandemic recovery fund.

Rather than €94.4 billion over the next seven years as proposed, the R&D program Horizon Europe, will get €80.9 billion.

In current prices, that is less than the current program, Horizon 2020, which draws to a close at the end of the year. From 2014 – 2020, research got 7.1% of the overall EU budget; for 2021 – 2027, research is in line for just 4.5%.

And what was to be the EU’s largest-ever health program, EU4Health, designed to help member states strengthen their health care systems, build drug and medical equipment stockpiles and be better prepared for future pandemics, was cut from €9.4 billion to €1.7 billion.

There also were cuts to programs that fund researchers to work in different member states and schemes backing science-based startups.

This will be the first time the research budget has fallen since the EU established its R&D program in 1984. Scientists and research lobby groups are stunned at the cuts, given political rhetoric about the role of innovation in recovery and coming at a time when EU-funded multinational research consortia are in the thick of mounting a pan-European response to the pandemic.

The usually apolitical European Research Council (ERC), which is funded through the EU research program, took the unusual step of making a public statement, saying it “watched with dismay as the ambitions for Horizon Europe have shrunk.”

The agency, which provides large, multiyear grants for individual scientists carrying out fundamental research, criticized EU leaders for making the cuts, “while at the same time relying on the skills of Europe’s researchers to fight the ongoing global pandemic.”

The funding cuts are “a major disappointment and a breach of trust” given politicians’ statements on the importance of research, said Kurt Deketelaere, head of the League of European Research Universities, a lobby group representing Europe’s most high ranking research institutions.

Similarly, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations decried the “drastic reduction” of EU4Health, saying the devastating effects of COVID-19 underline how investment in health systems is “vital” to prevent future health crises.

For Eurordis, which represents 900 rare diseases patients’ group, the cut to EU4Health is “unacceptable.” Its CEO, Yann Le Cam, said, “We are very disappointed that even in the middle of a global pandemic, EU leaders stepped away from an ambitious health program.”

Meanwhile the European Public Health Alliance called the cut “a lost opportunity for the health of Europe.” COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of Europe’s health care systems, but “it seems EU leaders have not only minimized the need to tackle immediate failures highlighted by the crisis, but have not fully considered the other looming health threats on the horizon.”

When the epic four-day meeting of heads of state concluded at 5.15 am on July 21 – the first time they had met in person since the start of the pandemic – it was not quite the end of story. The budget now has to be signed off by the European Parliament, which is largely in favor of research spending and has previously made the case for Horizon Europe to get €120 billion.

Meeting in plenary on July 23, MEPs of all parties vowed to reverse the decision to cut Horizon Europe. European parliament president, David Sassoli, told MEPs “less research will make Europe less resilient” and called on them to “correct [the] error” made by EU leaders.

In a statement, the parliament’s budget negotiating team said it will try to get more money for Horizon Europe and other “future-oriented programs” that were cut in favor of agriculture subsidies and finance for infrastructure in less wealthy countries and regions, the two programs that account for the majority of the EU budget.

While poorer member states benefit hugely from EU agriculture and infrastructure programs, most of the money for research – awarded on the basis of excellence – flows to richer member states that have the best universities and research systems.

That left Horizon Europe exposed during the tight negotiations, with richer countries having to sacrifice research to get the budget as a whole over the line.

Science ‘needed more than ever’

After failing to convince EU leaders of the importance of increasing spending on R&D, the attention of the research lobby has switched to MEPs.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president ad interim, European Research Council

In a notable move, the ERC – rudderless since star Italian-American scientist Mauro Ferrari resigned in April after only three months in the job – recalled former president, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, to take the fight on behalf of fundamental research to the European Parliament.

Following his reappointment on July 24, Bourguignon, head of ERC from 2014 to 2019, said one thing is “crystal clear” in the mire of COVID-19 uncertainty, which is that “science is needed more than ever.”

That is why it is all the more difficult to come to terms with the budget deal, Bourguignon said. “The ambition for research has left [ERC] and many others disheartened.”

The cut to the budget means Horizon Europe will have to drop some of the proposed strands of research. Member states want the focus to be on translation and commercialization, rather than the fundamental individual research that ERC supports.

But Bourguignon said that is short-sighted. That so many vaccines and therapies for COVID-19 are being developed at record speed in Europe, points to much basic science ground work carried out over many years.

“Focusing too much on short-term results will stifle future seeds of innovation,” said Bourguignon. Many key technologies come from public funding for long-term basic research. Horizon Europe is a seven-year program that should invest in research and innovation in a balanced and forward looking way. “We need to get away from the urgency mode that the pandemic rightly triggered,” he said.

While in favor of more money for research, the European Parliament negotiating team will not stare down the EU Council when they meet to iron out the final deal, because both sides want to sign off the 2021 - 2027 budget before the end of the year.

MEPs also do not want to stand in the way of the €750 billion pandemic recovery fund, which was the most contentious issue in the budget negotiations.

But there is some slight room for maneuvering, if for example the agriculture budget takes over farming-related research that Horizon Europe was due to fund.