Science vs. politics

Science vs. politics
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Science vs. politics

The EU’s Horizon Europe research programme is worth billions of euros and promotes scientific cooperation across the continent and beyond. But its admirable goals risk being undermined by the murky world of politics.

Nearly €100 billion is a lot of cash, especially for researchers, scientists and other people much cleverer than you or I, who quite often just need a little seed money to get started on the way to something huge.

Horizon Europe (the artist formerly known as Horizon 2020) ranks up there with Erasmus+ and free mobile phone roaming as tangible examples of EU policy-making that genuinely make the world a better place.

Pity then that it risks infection from political manoeuvres, as the programme finds itself drawn more and more into the ongoing disputes the EU has with non-members of the club: the United Kingdom and Switzerland, in particular.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


The UK’s Brexit deal included Horizon European association, in return for an annual membership fee of around €2 billion. But its application is on ice, as both sides fight over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Although there were glimpses of progress yesterday when the British and EU officials charged with all things Brexit met in Brussels, Horizon’s benefits will likely remain out of reach for UK researchers for some time yet.

Swiss officials come to the EU capital next week too for more talks on the best way forward, after the Alpine republic’s government could not agree on renewing the treaty that governs relations with the bloc.

Compared with the Gordion Knot that is the UK’s withdrawal from the Union and the unpredictable nature of Boris Johnson’s government, there are better chances of a compromise with the Swiss. Although there is no guarantee.

When it comes to the UK though, the logic is clear.

On the one hand, why should the European Commission give the green light to a country whose government has shown a blatant disregard for international norms?

There are also applications from other countries, some of them aspiring EU-members, yet to be processed. The EU has more to gain from winning hearts and, especially, minds in the Western Balkans, for example, than in Western Europe.

On Friday, Armenia - a country that was a veritable production line of Soviet-era scientists and chess grandmasters - was granted access to Horizon Europe, building on the five years of membership the Caucasian nation has enjoyed already.

It is a thriving hotbed for small and medium-sized enterprises and there is no shortage of appetite for innovation. But decades of conflict with hydrocarbon-rich neighbour Azerbaijan and a closed border with Turkey have extracted a heavy toll.

Horizon Europe membership for Armenia, in this case, will help heal the wounds that have partly been inflicted by politics, if the money is spent wisely of course. More countries are due to get the Commission’s green light soon too.

Political or not?

But on the other hand, why should science pay at all for the sins of politicians? UK researchers have been included in cross-border projects in good faith by counterparts elsewhere, under the assumption Horizon funding was a done-deal.

As new funding calls roll around, it is unlikely that they will be included in applications. No surprise then that CESAER, a group representing more than 1,000 universities and academics, recently urged the Commission to look beyond politics and give its approval. 

If anything, this is a chance for Brussels to show once again that it is the party that acts in good faith, honours its commitments and still has European integration at the core of its policies.

MEP Christian Ehler wrote this week that the new structure of the Horizon programme has introduced a more political element to membership, as any country that fulfils its criteria can join, unlike the previous scheme which was more limited in scope.

Ehler insists that “it should be political because it shapes the world we live in. However, this political nature also demands transparency and clarity, particularly for researchers who are working together with partners outside the Union to improve our world.”

The German MEP adds that the political considerations being made by the Commission and Council are not entirely clear and would benefit from more scrutiny by lawmakers.

With an eye on the future, delegates involved with the EU’s Conference on the Future of Europe are pushing for academic freedom to be enshrined within the bloc’s legal order and explicitly mentioned in the treaties.

However, topics like research and development, innovation and education were not included in the initial part of the process, which is already unlikely to prompt any major changes to the way the EU does its business.

The European Parliament at least wants the Commission to perform a stocktake of academic freedoms within member states when the Horizon programme reaches its midpoint in 2023-2024.

If governments are found to be curbing progress, financial penalties could follow. Although without treaty change, the scope for enforcement is limited at best.

We live in difficult times that require the scientific community to be firing on all cylinders. A vaccine against a virus that brought the world economy to its knees and has killed millions was produced in record time, thanks undoubtedly to collaborative programmes like this.

UN climate talks in Glasgow have also shown the incalculable value of climate modelling and probably indicate that technology will have to ride to the rescue sooner rather than later. 

Science and politics cannot be separated totally from one another but the relationship between the two has to be healthy. It appears that the EU has work to do on that front.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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