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Basic research: Why it must be a priority in Horizon Europe, by Teresa Roldán Arjona

14 June 2018

The proposal for the next Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, also known as Horizon Europe, has been published by the European Commission. Universities and research centres across Europe are welcoming with excitement the budget increase dedicated to research and innovation, as compared with the current Horizon 2020 programme. Although this is undoubtedly an important milestone for European Science, a bitter feeling remains. Despite the increase, the proposal is far from the ambitious financial scenario that the European science community was expecting.

The main concern relates to pillar 1 “Open Science” and the European Research Council (ERC). This pillar, although clearly underfunded in Horizon 2020, has demonstrated to be very successful, with outstanding results and worldwide recognition. Unfortunately, in clear contradiction with EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas´s declarations in the 2017 Annual Report on the ERC’s activities and achievements, calling that pillar “our jewel in the crown”, Horizon Europe dedicates nearly the same budget to it as in Horizon 2020. This is highly disappointing and contrasting to the very welcome increase in the budget allocated to pillar 2 “Global Challenges”.

It is urgent to call broad attention to the fact that public science funding is progressively and dangerously moving toward an instant-gratification system that demands proof of immediate societal and mainly financial impact, rather than establishing smart planning for the long term. This scenario drives basic or fundamental research to an undeserved secondary position within the EU funding schemes. Basic research is a public good; it is basic because it is not possible to make an immediate profit from it, and therefore cannot easily be of interest to the private sector. However, it is crucial to understand that basic research works for the benefit of every citizen because it is the keystone of innovation. Products and services demanded by the European society have not been, and will not be, possible without tremendous work involving basic research.

The growth in prosperity during the last century and all the great advances that we are profiting from as a society rely on the basic research funded over the last few decades. GPS, smartphones, hybrid cars or search engines, just to cite some samples, are the result of basic research in physics, chemistry or computer science. Quality of life and life expectancy have undergone a significant improvement in the last century as a result of advances in molecular biology, genetics and biomedicine. Therefore, investing in fundamental research is essential to ensure the continuous generation of the knowledge necessary to increase our innovation capacity. Insufficient financial support for basic research means reducing our investment in the future. European institutions must reassert the importance of supporting fundamental science and increase the budget of the “Open Science” pillar.

Professor Teresa Roldán Arjona is Vice-Rector of Research at the University of
Córdoba in Spain and a member of the EUA Research Policy Working Group.

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