April 13, 2012 / 4:10 PM / 7 years ago

EU to divert research funds to nuclear fusion project-sources

* Nuclear fusion plant to receive 360 million euro from EU budget

* 2013 budget cut aimed at research and innovation funding

By Claire Davenport

BRUSSELS, April 13 (Reuters) - The cash-strapped European Union may divert spending for information technology research next year to help fund a costly nuclear fusion project, EU officials and lobbyists said.

Critics of the plans, which are set to be finalised later this month, said they risked undermining the bloc’s push for economic growth and job creation as a route out of the financial crisis.

The cuts to the European Commission’s funds for technological research in 2013 “could be as much as 150 million,” John Higgins, director general of the EU’s biggest IT lobby Digital Europe, said.

The official in charge of the EU’s digital policies hinted at plans to cut research funding during a speech in Rome earlier this week.

“The rumour that is going around - and that is awful - is to cut (spending) in ICT research and technology, research and innovation. And that is like not giving water to plants,” said Neelie Kroes, EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda.

According to an internal document seen by Reuters, Kroes believes that half her research budget - roughly 140 million euros - may be sacrificed to help fill a 360 million-euro funding gap for a global nuclear fusion reactor project based in France called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

The EU’s 27 countries agreed in February that the Commission should redirect funding from other policy areas in the EU budget to make up the shortfall in ITER spending.

The spokesperson for the EU’s budget commissioner, Janusz Lewandowski, said no budget cuts had been officially agreed yet.

“I imagine that we will spread the pain over several budgetary lines,” Patrizio Fiorilli said.

The internal document identified energy efficient cars and advanced manufacturing as two areas where cuts could fall.

THE 1.4 BILLION EURO QUESTION

The ITER project, based in Cadarache in southern France, seeks to crack the puzzle of commercialising nuclear fusion — the process that powers the sun.

It is jointly funded by the European Union and six countries: India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

The overall EU share of construction costs more than doubled from 2.7 billion euros in 2001 to 7.2 billion euros in 2010.

European politicians have been trying to help plug a total 1.4 billion euro funding gap for the plant in 2012-2013.

The U.S. government proposed to cut its funding for homegrown fusion reactors last month to help fund the project.

The European Union has poured over 100 billion euros into technology research carried out by companies and academics over the last 25 years to try to keep up with U.S. and Asian innovation.

EU funding has helped develop the mobile phone standard - the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) - and MPEGs - files that help computers play music and films.

An internal Commission ranking seen by Reuters shows the top 50 recipients of EU technology research funding to date, the vast majority of which are research institutes, but also include six IT companies: SAP, Philips, Siemens , France Telecom and research centres owned by Telefonica and IBM.

“It is regrettable that ICT research would suffer budget cuts, as ICT is an enabler to overcome the economic downturn and is a factor for sustainable growth, jobs and productivity,” Frederick De Backer from Telefonica said.

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