We still need to push the frontiers of science

A strong and independent ERC is vital for our ability to meet and tackle future challenges and crises. Since we do not necessarily know what these are, we need to prepare for the unknown, for which there are no better way than investing in excellent bottom-up researcher driven frontier science.

The University of Bergen, together with other leading universities, Nobel laureates and scientists, wrote an open letter and started a petition in April 2020 with the single aim of drawing attention to protecting the European Research Council (ERC) and the bottom-up, frontier research in the next EU budget and in Horizon Europe.

In under three months, the petition has gathered over 12 000 signatures from 89 countries, hereunder all the 27 EU Member States. Organizations, associations, universities and scientists are among our notable supporters.  It is a strong signal from the academic community to our political leaders, that the ERC, its way of funding research and the results stemming from this type of research is an extremely valuable asset to our society. A strong and independent ERC is vital for our ability to meet and tackle future challenges and crises.

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen presented a revised long-term EU budget proposal (MFF) in late May together with the recovery package Next Generation EU. In the budget proposal, the next research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, is taking a huge cut from the original budget proposal of the European Commission from May 2018 as well as compared to the Council President Charles Michel’s proposal of February 2020. In the first proposal, HEU stood to be allocated about 100 billion EUR, while in the latest proposal, 80.9 billion EUR. This means a cut to all pillars of the program, including to the European Research Council.

On top of the allocations from the MFF, the European Commission proposes to allocate 13.5 billion EUR from Next Generation EU to Horizon Europe. But there are heavy strings attached to these funds – it will only be given through the priority areas of health, digital and climate as well as through the European Innovation Council (EIC). The reason for this, is partially because the European Commission need to give a response to the COVID-19 crisis as well as meeting the new digital era and supporting the European Green deal. All of these are valid and understandable reasons.

But, in our eagerness to respond to crisis, meeting great challenges and trying to transform our society, we must not forget what the driving forces for deep and radical changes to society are.

Looking to history, these changes has been driven by pushing the frontiers of our knowledge about the world and how it works through bottom-up researcher-driven science. Moreover, our preparedness to both changes and crisis are ultimately strengthened by the pool of knowledge created by bottom-up research, which can be drawn-upon when needed.

There is a growing fear amongst leaders of the university sector across Europe that the new focus on targeted research and innovation activities will hurt our ability to stimulate and create knowledge in a wider perspective. By picking winners and trying to respond to crisis on the short term, we lose sight of the long-term knowledge production, which is the main driving force for our ability to respond and change.

The European Research Council (ERC) has set the gold standard for bottom-up researcher driven frontier science funding. Through its unique formula of independence from political intervention, bold research ideas, bottom-up approach, and a singular focus on excellence, ERC grants have become one of the most prestigious research grants in the world.

It is with fear and anxiety we observe that the ERC is under pressure financially and that allocations to this important instrument will take the largest cut within Horizon Europe. It is with concern and worry we see that the voices defending this important instrument are getting fewer and fewer while the ERC financed projects actually has relatively more patent applications than projects from the thematic areas of the Horizon program. It is with distress and unease we note that budget as at risk of being cut, even though there are 400 projects on average each year that are rated A in stage evaluations that are not financed because the ERC is underfunded.

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