Supporting Scientific Research – Monthly COVID-19 News Round Up

Welcome to RESEARCHconnect’s monthly roundup of news on coronavirus/COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, the RESEARCHconnect Content Team will be closely tracking coronavirus research news of relevance to our clients and producing this roundup in addition to our usual news output.

European Council Agrees Long Term Budget, Makes Major Cuts to Research Funding

After months of protracted negotiations, EU leaders have agreed a budget of €80.9 billion for Horizon Europe as part of the next Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-27.

Cutting the European Commission’s proposed budget for research programmes has been high on the European Council’s agenda throughout negotiations, but many observers were still shocked by the depth of the cuts. The proposed final allocation for the core Horizon Europe programme is €75.9 billion with an additional €5 billion from the pandemic recovery fund. Compared to the main budget of €94.4 billion plus €13.5 billion top-up proposed by the European Commission in May, this figure represents a victory for the so-called frugal four of Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden (joined by Finland).

An overall package of €1,824.3 billion will combine the MFF for 2021-27 and the new Next Generation EU (NGEU) recovery instrument. NGEU will raise money by temporarily lifting the own resources ceiling to 2.00% of EU Gross National Income, allowing the Commission to use its strong credit rating to borrow €750 billion on the financial markets. Reinforced by NGEU, the MFF will also be the main instrument for implementing the recovery package to tackle the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, described the deal as ‘strong and ambitious’. Acknowledging the disparity with the Commission’s proposed budget, Michel insisted that additional funding would be ‘mobilised in the various areas such as digital, Horizon Europe and Erasmus’ compared to the current MFF allocation.

However, the announcement does not mean either the long-term budget for 2021-27 is resolved, or that the planned launch of Horizon Europe can go ahead. The Council’s proposal now moves to the European Parliament, where it has been met with a frosty reception.

European Commission and MEPs Shocked by Reduced Research Budget

Following publication of the Council’s proposed spending plans, the European Parliament’s negotiating team issued a statement saying: ‘We will strive to secure improvements, including higher amounts, on future-oriented MFF programmes like Horizon, InvestEU, LIFE, Erasmus+. And if our conditions are not sufficiently met we will adopt the programmes on the basis of the existing MFF, as foreseen by the Treaty [on the Functioning of the European Union].’

Responding on Twitter, Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth called the cuts to research, innovation and education ‘regrettable’. German MEP Christian Ehler, one of the two co-rapporteurs for Horizon Europe described the proposal as leading to ‘…a Europe falling apart in terms of R&D and innovation when stronger member states like Germany already started to raise their R&D budget beyond 3% of the GDP and develop their national programmes on key technologies like quantum and AI’.

European Parliament President David Sassoli said that MEPs should ‘correct errors’ made by EU leaders, adding: ‘We cannot cut budget resources from research and Erasmus.’ EU Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen struck a more measured tone, describing the cuts as ‘regrettable and painful’.

In a resolution on the conclusions of the European Council meeting adopted by 465 votes against 150, with 67 abstentions, MEPs welcomed EU leaders’ acceptance of the recovery fund as proposed by Parliament in May, calling it a ‘historic move for the EU’. Parliament also expressed disapproval of ‘massive cuts’ to grant components and future-oriented programmes arguing that they would ‘undermine the foundations of a sustainable and resilient recovery’.

The resolution ends with confirmation that Parliament will not accept the European Council’s political agreement on the 2021-2027 MFF as it stands and ‘will not rubber-stamp a fait accompli’. MEPs are also ‘prepared to withhold their consent’ for the MFF until a ‘satisfactory’ agreement is reached in the upcoming negotiations between Parliament and the Council, preferably by the end of October at the latest for a smooth start of the EU programmes from 2021.

Research Sector Responds to Proposed Budget Cuts

The strength of feeling against the proposals from the Commission was mirrored by an unprecedentedly scathing response from the research sector. The initial reaction was summed up by president of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), Kurt Deketelaere, who called the plans ‘a historical low for R&I’.

March Schiltz, president of Science Europe, an association of major Research Funding Organisations and Research Performing Organisations, stated that the budget ‘is not in any way commensurate to the challenges ahead’. This was supported by the European University Association (EUA), who stated that the final agreed amount is just two-thirds of the amount deemed necessary by the European Parliament and EUA.

A similar response came from Mattias Björnmalm of CESAER, an association of leading science and technology universities, who dubbed the proposals ‘extremely counter-productive’. He elaborated: ‘Research and innovation has proven its value again and again during the pandemic and will be crucial for recovery and resilience in Europe. These cuts must be reversed.’ A joint statement from six Technology Platforms and research partnerships in the European agri and aqua food sectors called the cuts ‘incompatible’ with the Commission’s research objectives and warned the plan ‘significantly diminishes Europe’s capacity to accomplish the green and digital transitions’.

At the national level, the German public health foundation Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung tweeted that the proposals were ‘bad news’ for EU research, while Klaus Schuch, the scientific director of Austria’s Center for Social Innovation (ZSI), dubbed them an ‘absurd sacrifice’. Furthermore, several Dutch university associations, including the Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU), the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres (NFU) and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), issued a joint statement expressing disappointment in the plans, as well as national politicians for campaigning for a smaller budget.

Pleas to Parliament

Sarika Wilson, head of policy at the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, stated that R&I was ‘really not the right place to save (funds)’, and called the move ‘short-sighted’. Wilson also issued what would be a recurring call from the research sector for the Commission and MEPs to act to prevent the cuts from coming into effect, saying: ‘We know that there are many EU member states that want to prioritise research and innovation in the EU budget, and hope that they will restore the ambition to increase investments in Horizon Europe.’

Such calls were echoed by The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, which urged the European Parliament to ‘focus on improvements’, stating that it ‘can be assured of our support in its ambition to strengthen research, innovation and education’. Perhaps the most overt call came from The European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), which in a statement said, ‘Members of the European Parliament, we call on you today to be our Champions in the next negotiations.’

Further calls came from Saara Harjula, an EU affairs advisor at the University of Helsinki, who urged the European Parliament to have ‘a strong voice on this’, while Science Europe, LERU and the EUA followed up their negative reaction to the plans by urging the Parliament to reject the proposals and demand more funding for R&I. Many organisations also iterated the need for more funding for Erasmus+ and education in general, with the EUA citing this as ‘key to meeting the challenges of the digital transition’.

Unsurprisingly therefore, Parliament’s subsequent rejection of the plans were roundly welcomed. All European Academies (ALLEA), the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, dubbed the original proposals ‘a severe and long-term threat to Europe’s capacities as a world leader in science’, and stated the organisation ‘welcomes the ambition’ of MEPs to obtain a larger budget. The EUA also issued a statement saying the organisation ‘welcomes the resolution and supports the European Parliament in its call for more funding for research, innovation and the Green Deal’.

Horizon Europe and Brexit

Elsewhere in Europe, a significant and coordinated approach towards the UK’s future access to and participation in Horizon Europe was advocated by over 100 organisations from across the UK and Europe.

The proposal specifically addresses ways in which current disagreements from both sides about the UK’s participation in the programme can be overcome. Signatories include Universities UK, the Russell Group, Wellcome Trust, the EUA as well as former EU research commissioner Carlos Moedas, former chief of the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy, and director of the Crick Institute in London Sir Paul Nurse.

The plan calls for negotiators on both sides to build on their ‘encouraging’ commitment to UK participation in the process, and urges them to do so ‘with fresh energy, a spirit of compromise, and a focus on what is needed for the success of the programme’. The proposal specifically consists of a plan based on mutual trust and cooperation that will overcome barriers to UK participation. Commenting on the letter, Chief Executive of the Russell Group Dr Tim Bradshaw said:

‘We urge both sides to approach the next round of negotiations with an open mind and a spirit of compromise to get a mutually beneficial deal over the line.

‘We now urge all parties to consider the proposals set out in the statement, backed by the scientific community, and we stand ready to support the Government as it looks ahead to an ambitious future for global research collaboration.’

Keen interest in a positive outcome from talks between the EU and UK extends beyond Europe. Policy and advocacy manager at Wellcome Trust Martin Smith has warned that failure to agree a deal for UK access to Horizon Europe could impact on the programme’s appeal to other potential third party countries:

‘Whatever transpires in the Brexit talks sets the bar for everyone else. There’s a recognition that, if we can’t get this right, the chances of the EU managing to coax other large economies on board Horizon Europe drops off significantly,’ he said, adding, ‘this impacts on the overall attractiveness of the programme.’

European Commission Sets Out Manifesto for EU COVID-19 Research

Away from budget negotiations, plans continued to ensure research into the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic achieves maximum impact. The European Commission has launched a manifesto with the aim of maximising the accessibility of COVID-19 research results.

The manifesto provides guiding principles for beneficiaries of EU research grants for coronavirus prevention, testing, treatment and vaccination to ensure that their research results will be accessible for all and guarantee a return on public investment.

It commits stakeholders to:

Making generated results public and accessible without delay, via the Horizon Results Platform, an existing IP platform or through another existing patent pool.

Making scientific papers and research data available in open access without delay following the FAIR principles and using the European COVID-19 Data Platform.

Granting, for a limited time, non-exclusive royalty free licenses on the intellectual property produced from EU-funded research.

The Commission is seeking the voluntary support and endorsement of all public and private stakeholders benefitting from EU funding, other research funders and prominent individuals and institutions. Organisations including the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Young European Research Universities Network (Yerun) and ALLEA have already pledged their support.

European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, has endorsed the manifesto, saying: ‘The importance of cooperating closely across the EU and beyond, supporting open science and the principles of open access against coronavirus has never been more evident.’

What We’ve Seen: Call Updates

Research into a COVID-19 vaccine and effective treatment continues at a swift pace. In addition, numerous studies in non-medical disciplines are complementing the work being done on COVID-19 within the medical field. Social and economic, arts and humanities, and engineering and technology research is feeding into the worldwide response to the pandemic. New funding calls are not limited solely to treatments, diagnostics and vaccines, and there is an evolving wider focus on the longer lasting effects and the ‘post COVID-19 era’.

There are more than 140 teams of researchers around the world currently trying to develop a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) is tracking the candidate vaccines and, at the time of writing, there are five vaccines at the large-scale efficacy trial stage. The CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) global partnership is working with WHO to promote the development of new vaccines against COVID-19. It has recently extended its second COVID-19 vaccine funding call ‘Accelerating Vaccine Development and Global Manufacturing Capacity to Stop the Pandemic’ (originally launched in May). Application is open to research organisations and companies based in any country and the call is open until 28 September 2020.

As lockdown rules were implemented across the globe, the United Nations described the worldwide increase in domestic abuse during lockdown as a ‘shadow pandemic’ alongside COVID-19. In response, the Sexual Violence Research Initiative (SVRI), a global research network on violence against women and children based in South Africa, has announced that a strand of its funding will be allocated to COVID-19 studies as part of its annual call for proposals. SVRI will support research in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) on the impact of COVID-19 on violence against women (VAW) and the VAW/VAC (violence against children) intersections. The application deadline is 15 September 2020.

Another international funder, the US Social Science Research Council (SSRC) has launched the Just Tech COVID-19 Rapid-Response Grants initiative to support projects from across the social sciences and related fields that address the risks, opportunities and challenges posed by public health surveillance stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The call is open to researchers worldwide with a PhD in social sciences, humanities or related interdisciplinary fields (such as law, political philosophy, gender studies and public health). Proposals are accepted on a rolling basis and grants will provide support for research beginning as early as November 2020.

As part of its Open Call for Research and Innovation Ideas to Address COVID-19, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has launched a second highlight notice call to understand the reasons for minority ethnic group vulnerability to COVID-19 and the differential social, cultural and economic impacts of the pandemic on minority ethnic groups.

What We’ve Seen: Successful Funding Applications

As many funding initiatives were rapidly introduced at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, there are more and more reports of successfully funded projects, researchers commencing ground-breaking studies and initial research results. Again, there are many projects within domains other than medicine, which highlights the far-reaching effects of the pandemic in terms of geography and disciplinary scope.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK announced the successes from its COVID-19 Public Engagement Grant, which offered funding for projects for new or adapted public engagement with environmental science activities. It sought to understand, address or mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Projects included online lessons to teach children about environmental science using Minecraft and an interactive online short story to explore changes in air pollution due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The US-based Stanton Foundation released information about the grand prize winners from its contest, Applying History to Clarify the COVID-19 Challenge. The Foundation awarded two grand prizes for the best articles published during the first six months of 2020: A Wess Mitchell and Charles Ingrao for ‘Emperor Joseph’s Solution to Coronavirus’ and Andrew Ehrhardt for ‘Disease and Diplomacy in the 19th Century’.

Europe’s partnership for health, the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), has announced that the first COVID-19 project funded through its fast-track call for proposals on coronavirus diagnostics and treatments is now underway. GNA Biosolutions GmbH (Germany) and partners have started work on the ‘Decision’ project to develop an easy-to-use, low-cost, disposable test for COVID-19 that can give results within minutes. It is hoped that the first demonstrators of the disposable test will be available in 2021. It is interesting to note that GNA Biosolutions previously received IMI funding to develop an Ebola virus rapid diagnostic test.

Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF – Federal Ministry for Education and Research) announced on 20 July 2020 that it has tripled the funding amount originally earmarked for its COVID-19 research call, meaning it will invest €45 million in over 80 projects. The Rapid Response Module ‘National Research Network on Zoonotic Infectious Diseases’ call opened in March 2020 and funded projects include CoronaCare (an ethnographic study to examine how social exchange is affected by measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic) and RECOVER (a clinical study to investigate the efficacy of treating COVID-19 patients with plasma from people who have survived a COVID-19 infection and have raised antibodies to SARS-CoV-2).

RESEARCHconnect Coverage

RESEARCHconnect will be offering support via ongoing coverage of changes to funding and policy during the pandemic, helping the research community as it adapts to its new working environment and helping it keep pace with current and future funding support/strategies. We will also keep you informed of other events overshadowed by the pandemic but which will still have a huge impact on the funding landscape scheduled for this year, such as the showdown between the European Council and Parliament over the MFF, the planned launch of Horizon Europe and the resolution of Brexit negotiations.

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