Accounting and working with budget numbers isn’t always that boring as it appears to be, especially if it’s spiced up with marketing. Presentation matters and can make reality more shining (or more gloomy) than it actually is.
A good example is the debate on the budget of Horizon 2020 as compared to the previous framework programmes. At the start of Horizon 2020, the European Commission press department proudly announced an increase for the European Research Council (ERC) of nearly 60% compared to the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). That’s a strong push for Europe’s fundamental research. But the push is not as strong as it appears: If you look into the numbers for 2013 and the proposed development of the annual budgets for 2014 and onwards, you will be surprised to see annual increases of only about 4% on average.
How to explain the divergence? Firstly, you have to know that the numbers for FP7 and Horizon 2020 are often presented in terms of total amounts for the seven-year lifetime of the framework programmes. Also, you have to know that ERC was established only in 2007. For a new institution that needed time to reach full operational capacity, it was reasonable to start off with a low budget for the first calls. The bulk of ERC’s budget increase has already happened in the first years of ERC’s existence.
Along similar lines goes the solution on how to make an decrease look like an increase: A budget of “30% more than the current allocation” is announced for the mobility programme in Horizon 2020, now named Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). It’s like in another world when we look into the work programme to spot what has been budgeted for 2014: 817M Euro. That is considerably lower than 954M Euro, the sum which has been spent in 2013 for the same programme under FP7. And these numbers do not even consider the budget for the Erasmus Mundus Doctoral Programmes that have been merged with the MSCA. Again the key to the solution is to know that numbers have been calculated over a period of seven years. The programme has had a budget increase within the period 2007-2013. And after a cut in 2014, the annual budgets are expected to rise again over the next years, especially towards the end of the programming period.
That’s still not all that makes the EU budget developments difficult to follow. There is a considerable gap between commitments and payments which is the reason for ongoing debates on potential cuts to the 2015 budget, despite the overall financial framework for 2014-2020 that has been settled more than a year ago. It is also the main reason for the very unequal annual budget development for Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions and other programmes.
In the course of organising the ‘no-cuts-on-research.eu’ campaign in late 2012 and 2013, we have seen several scenarios and rumours on the EU budget. It could have gone much worse for research funding in Europe. But, partly because we initiated a powerful movement against foreseeable cuts on the research budget, a movement that was supported by 44 Nobel laureates and also industry leaders and by over 153’000 signatories of a petition, those severe cuts could be avoided.
In the course of the campaign, we noticed a surprising lack of transparency on the budget negotiations, and also an unexpected illiteracy regarding the modalities of those negotiations among many stakeholders and policy-makers in- and outside Brussels. Admittedly, as we have seen, those modalities are complex; we cannot expect everybody to do calculations on her/his own in order to understand the consequences. But that only emphasizes how important budget analysis is and how much presentation matters.
Therefore, we need an independent and well-staffed observatory on science policy that has the capacity to look behind the numbers and to inform the science base across Europe.