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Nobel, Fields Medal winners launch campaign against EU research austerity

European Nobel and Fields Medal prizewinners have launched a continent-wide campaign to protect European Union (EU) research funding from austerity.

German biologist Christiane Nuesslein-Volhard; France’s Serge Haroche, this year’s co-winner of the Nobel prize for physics; geneticist and president of the Royal Society Paul Nurse; and 47 other leading researchers have signed an open letter calling on European leaders to defend EU research funding.

At a time when Brussels — itself recently awarded its own Nobel gong for peace — is ordering governments across the 27-member bloc to slash public spending, a number of national capitals are kicking back and saying that if they need to tighten their belt domestically, then the EU needs to as well.

And the proposed €90 billion (US$116 billion) in funding for the union’s flagship seven-year research programme, Horizon 2020, is one of the items on the chopping block. At a special summit in Brussels on 22 November, national leaders will consider the EU’s overall funding for 2013–18.

The rotating EU presidency — in charge of shepherding the negotiations and now held by Cyprus — at the end of September set out a basis for negotiations that would see the proposed EU budget revised downwards across all areas, which would include Horizon 2020.

The Cypriot proposal has “particularly worried” scientists, Wolfgang Eppenschwandtner, the coordinator of the Initiative for Science in Europe, the platform of European learned societies and scientific organizations that initiated the campaign, told Nature.

“Science can help us find answers to many of the pressing problems facing us at this time: new ways to harness energy, new forms of production and products, improved ways to understand how societies function and how we might order them better,” the Nobel and Fields laureates write in the letter, which was published in 33 newspapers across the bloc on Tuesday, including in the Financial Times, Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“Transforming this knowledge into innovative new products, services and industries is the only way to provide Europe with a competitive edge in today’s rapidly changing global landscape.”

The authors of the letter argue that without substantial research funding at the EU level, the continent will be less able to attract young researchers from around the world, further undermining the bloc’s competitiveness.

“If these cuts happen — and that seems to be almost sure, unfortunately — the question is where to cut,” said Eppenschwandtner. “So our message is if cuts are necessary, then please not research.”

Eppenschwandtner would not, however, be drawn on naming which other spending areas should be cut further to allow research to escape the axe.

Holders of European Research Council Starting Grants — the EU-funded programme aiming to give excellent early-career researchers a leg up — have also joined the campaign, and an online petition was also launched on Tuesday.

A number of EU member states, led by the United Kingdom, want the European Commission’s proposed EU budget of more than €1 trillion, or 1.1% of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP), to be frozen at current levels. London has threatened to veto any European Council decision if it does not get its way, and Germany has proposed a compromise, backed by six other member states, that would see EU spending capped at 1% of GDP. France and Italy are also leaning towards the Berlin position. Fifteen states, meanwhile, back the commission’s proposal for a bigger budget.

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    Umberto Cannella said:

    This petition is very welcome, in that it asks the public to express its support. However in order for the public to be appreciative of science it has to be aware first and this can only be achieved if the public is engaged in a two-way conversation.
    My recipe for tackling this problem at its roots is in a paper I titled “Who cares about physics today? A marketing strategy for the survival of fundamental science and the benefit of society”: it is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082, I hope you will find it interesting.

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