Austerity policies across Europe could eat away at the European Union's research and innovation budget, leading scientists from both Israel and abroad have warned. This chipping away of funds could prompt an exodus of scientists from the continent, they say, and senior members from Israel's academic world fear that it could do significant damage to research and industry here at home.

Fifty Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners, including four Nobel Laureates from Israel, voiced their concerns in an open letter sent last week to European leaders. The letter comes ahead of a special EU summit slated for November 22, in which the overall funding budget for the Union will be set. Leaders of all 27 EU member states will be on hand for the caucus.

The scientists are scuttling to save Horizon 2020, the EU's seven-year research framework project, which is in dire straits thanks to Europe's ongoing financial turmoil. The program is set to run from 2014-2020 and was originally slated to receive 80 billion euros, an increase of 30 billion euros over the previous seven-year program. But it now looks as though that amount will be slashed by 10 billion.

"Europe can ill afford to lose its best researchers and teachers," warned the scientists in the letter, signed by Nobel laureates including four Israeli representatives – Prof. Aaron Ciechanover and Prof. Avram Hershko, who jointly won the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry; Prof. Robert J. Aumann, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics; and Prof. Ada Yonath, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

"Reducing the funding available for excellent research means a smaller number of trained researchers," wrote the scientists. "In the case of a severe reduction in the EU research and innovation budget we risk losing a generation of talented scientists just when Europe needs them most."

The letter, which was published last week in leading European newspapers, was accompanied by a petition meant for the political leaders of EU member states. So far, more than 84,500 people have signed the petition, mainly young scientists. Among the signatories are more than 1,000 Israelis.

Hundreds of millions of euros

Israel joined the European Union's seven-year program in 2006, and since then it has enjoyed research grants for industry and academia worth hundreds of millions of euros. Despite its small size, the nation stands out for the number of grants it receives from the European Research Council, or ERC, grants that are given on a competitive basis for academic and industrial research in Israel.

Prof. Ruth Arnon, president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, says that "this cutback is likely to be a painful and fatal blow for Israeli scientists."

Israel became a partner in the framework program in 2007. "During the last half of the decade, you couldn't underestimate the importance of ERC grants to Israeli science in particular, and the Israeli economy in general," said Arnon.

"We are critically dependent upon the program led by the European Union," adds Prof. Israel Pecht from the Weizmann Institute, who is secretary general of the Federation of European Biochemical Societies.

Prof. Danny Dolev, from Hebrew University, who is a member of the ERC's Scientific Council, says that "Israel is one of the prominent winners of the research grants in relation to its size. In recent years, the funding from Europe has become essential in order to fund academic and industrial research. A significant portion of research in Israel is due to European grants."

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It's not only the fragile European economy that is making everyone fear budget cuts, however. The EU has also ramped up its demands to Israel in terms of yearly participation fees for the program.

Over the last seven years, Israel allocated 550 million euros for the program, and won research grants and funding for research programs in industry and academia worth 620 million euros. According to estimates, those grants will total 700 million euros by the end of the year.

The budget is funded by the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry.

But in the run up to the next Horizon program, the EU has demanded that Israel increase its participation fee to 140 million euros per year (equivalent to NIS 700 million). This means that the total amount handed over by Israel over the next seven years of the program will increase to 980 million euros – a steep hike of 40 percent. The reason? Participation fees are determined by each country's GDP, and Israel's GDP has risen over the last few years while countries in Europe have remained mired in an economic mess.

Nevertheless, government officials argue that Israel can't afford to pay such high rates without dipping into its national research budgets. In the near future, negotiations are expected to start up between Israel's representatives and the EU. The hope is they will reach a solution over just how much money they will be required to pay to play.