The European Union has just launched the first stage of its most ambitious science funding program ever. But with elections and a new executive, 2014 might be the year for politics to take precedence over research.
In December 2013 the European Commission - the EU's executive - launched the first stage of its massive "Horizon 2020" research and innovation program. With 80 billion euros ($109 billion) of funding to slosh around over seven years, it's the science-funding good-news story of the decade.
And even in the dog-eat-dog world of European science funding, the consensus is that Horizon 2020 will provide EU science and enterprise with a shot in the arm. With research now struggling under the weight of the economic downturn, government-backed programs have become researcher's best friends.
However, some of those who have been shepherding the program through the red tape of Brussels in recent years may find themselves falling under the wheels of an unforgiving electoral cycle.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for May, likely bringing with them new members of commission and parliament. This could make 2014 a policy write-off.
Yet those working in the office of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn - Europe's commissioner for research, innovation and science - are adamant their boss is going to keep her "foot on the pedal" for the remainder of her term.
"Horizon 2020 [is] a totally new, innovative program for funding research in Europe and beyond," says Michael Jennings, Geoghegan-Quinn's spokesman. "Scientists and businesses are expecting a lot for the program - we have to deliver on that."
Big spend in tough times
Geoghegan-Quinn won't run for re-election on her European executive seat, and her spokesman says that means she'll be free to keep her eyes on what will be Horizon 2020's inevitably difficult implementation period.
"We promised to cut red tape, we promised to fund more close-to-market innovation," Jennings says. Which is something that the commission has not traditionally been very good at, he adds. "So there is a big challenge ahead to make that funding work for everybody."
Those members of the European Parliament who assume they will be back in Brussels after the polls close also reject the notion that 2014 will be a wasted year for science policy.
Maria Da Graça Carvalho, a centrist parliamentarian with a strong interest in science, says the rollout of Horizon 2020 will remain a top priority.
"Europe has made a big effort in difficult conditions," Carvalho says. With the total European budget having been cut 10 percent, the European Union is increasing its research and innovation budget, she points out.
Upbeat mood among recipients
The mood among those organisations that fund research - and carry it out - is also upbeat, even as the commissioners prepare to bid farewell to the EU.
Science Europe is the Brussels-based association for national funding bodies and researchers, many of whom stand to benefit from an EU-backed funding injection. Its members have just signed up for a new 'roadmap' designed to promote cross-border collaboration among EU member states.
"Lots of things are said about cross-border collaboration, like we need more and we need to do it better," says Amanda Crowfoot, director of Science Europe. She said there's a lack of information about the current situation. "So, what we worked on [in 2013] is building up the evidence base for cross-border collaboration."
Science and power
The scientist at the heart of policy development in the European Union is also adamant about what she has to do - even as the commission's legislative program comes to an end.
Anne Glover, advisor to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, says she is now working to ensure that her successor after May be given an even more prominent role in policy formulation.
"With any luck, that role [will be] strengthened within the commission," Glover says. She wants to see more scientific input into each ministry. "At the end of the day, it would give us much better evidence-based policy."