Some of the politer words that scientists use to describe the experience of applying for a European research grant are “Kafka-esque”, “counterproductive” and “tedious”.
Since February more than 13,000 researchers from 47 countries have signed the ‘Trust Researchers’ petition calling for urgent simplification of the EU’s research programmes. One signatory writes that completing an EU grant application took three times as long as the equivalent national application. Another tells of the frustration of being made to catalogue items worth €30 to secure a €2 million grant. Many say that, horrified by the paper-work, they and their colleagues no longer bother to apply for EU funding.
The European Commission has now promised to trim red tape, but reforms may take a few years to take effect.
Most complaints are directed at the framework programme, the EU’s main instrument for funding research, now in its seventh incarnation. FP7 is one of the biggest public-grant systems in the world. Between 2007 and 2013, it will hand out €50 billion. Every year the Commission makes 10,000 payments to European projects involving 36,000 researchers.
This is no small task, but researchers – and Commission officials, privately – say that unnecessary red tape has proliferated. The paperwork worsened in the wake of the 1999 scandal involving Édith Cresson, the then European commissioner for research, who was accused of nepotism and lax control. Since then Commission has tried to account for every eurocent of EU spending, leading to what researchers claim are “paranoid” levels of control. “You cannot finance research like you would buy chairs and tables,” says Olivier Küttel, director of EUresearch, a Swiss organisation that supports Swiss-based researchers, one of the organisers of the petition. “Research is about risk-taking,” he says. “It is difficult for researchers to survive in the current system.”
In April, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the new European commissioner for research, published a plan to simplify research funding. She proposes that grant recipients would get lump sums based on expected outputs, rather than being required to submit over-elaborate timesheets.
The European Union’s next research funding programme will not start until 2014, but preparations have already begun and battle lines are being drawn. An expert group will publish a review of the seventh framework programme later this year. This will inform the European Commission’s proposals on FP8, which are expected late next year or early in 2012.
A group of European universities has already warned against any “radical” moves to make European research funding contingent on politically defined outputs. In a recent paper, the League of European Research Universities (LERU) argues for a balance between top-down, politically directed funding and bottom-up, science-driven research. “Of course, a researcher needs to be accountable, but if you only invest in directed research you don’t get new developments,” says Stijn Delauré, a policy adviser at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and a co-author of the report.
The group has also criticised another EU funding stream for lacking transparency. The joint programming initiative, a voluntary scheme by EU countries to pool money and expertise on big scientific problems, started last year with a first, big project on Alzheimer’s disease. But the universities are concerned that scientists have not been involved enough in choosing project themes. So far, scientists have been involved only after officials chose the priorities for research, says Delauré. Political bodies have, complain the scientists, seized the opportunity to lobby for their special topics to be included, which does not necessarily lead to the best result, according to LERU. The universities propose that panels of scientists and entrepreneurs should define topics, while the Commission acts as a “gatekeeper” to ensure transparent management.
Rules would be simplified and streamlined. Cost definitions would be brought into line with standard accounting rules to minimise error, and payments made more speedily. As well as helping researchers, officials believe this would help the Commission, by reducing the time and money spent on financial control. In 2008 the Commission spent €267 million administering FP7, with the post-mortem audit of a project costing on average €60,000.
But the new rules will not come in place until the eighth framework programme gets under way in 2014, because the Commission is not keen to change the rules halfway through one funding programme.
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For Küttel, the proposals are nothing short of “amazing”. However, he points out that they still have to be approved by European research ministers and MEPs.
This will not be the end of the simplification quest. A Commission official says that “the ideal system” would be common European rules on giving grants. But that idea, he thinks, is 20 years away.