MEP: European research grants becoming ‘unattractive’

Inge_Grassle_big.jpg

European research funding runs the risk of becoming unattractive to researchers if the grant application process is not radically overhauled, Dr. Inge Gräßle (EPP-ED, DE) has warned in an interview with EURACTIV.

Inge Gräßle is a German MEP (EPP-ED) for Baden-Württemberg and a member of the Parliament’s budgets and budgetary control committees.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Dr. Gräßle, you have been critical at committee level of the way in which the research budget is managed. What specific problems have you raised? 

I have several critiques. What we saw in all the framework programmes for research was how burdensome the procedures are for funding proposals. It takes too long to receive funding and then it takes a long time before the Commission pays. 

Researchers are required to send mountains of paperwork to the Commission when they apply for grants and if they are successful – which only happens to a minority of applicants – they must go through even more administrative procedures to account for how they spent the grants. 

What does the Commission do with the reports they get back from researchers? I’m told there is a hangar somewhere at the airport where they pay a monthly fee to house all these reports. What’s the point in demanding all of this paperwork if we don’t communicate the results? 

What can be done to reduce the administrative burden on universities seeking EU research funding? 

I have proposed a two-stage procedure for applying for funds. At the moment, there is only one step and all applicants must give details of the whole project from the outset and go in-depth into how it will work. They also have to name all the participants and collaborators. 

What I would like to see is a first stage where researchers can send the Commission a more general description of the proposed project and, if the Commission finds it interesting, they ask those who pass the first step to send in more detailed paperwork. At the moment, the success rate of researchers applying for European funding is around 13%. This means 87% of requests for financing are thrown in the waste paper basket by the Commission. For big research networks, it can cost up €100,000 just to put together an application. This is a terrible waste of time and money. 

You expressed similar concerns about the funding process after the sixth framework programme for research (PF6). Have those issues been dealt with in the seventh framework? 

I am worried to see that criticisms and improvements I suggested to PF6 are not working in practice. I put down more than 130 amendments aimed at reducing the amount of waste and the burden put on universities and enterprises requesting funding. However, I see now that these have not been taken into account systematically. They accepted my suggestions but then introduced clauses in manuals and guidance notes, which go against the proposed simplification. Therefore what we won on one regulation, we lost in others. 

I’m really very concerned about this. All of my points were watered down. In terms of a two-stage application procedure, the Commission says this is acceptable but it’s not a must. The DG or the unit involved can decide how they want to structure the process. 

The figures I have now for the seventh framework programme show we have had no progress in reducing the amount of paperwork that we throw away – it’s the same as the figure we had before and therefore I’m a little frustrated. 

Are you concerned that European research programmes are becoming less attractive to businesses, universities and research institutes? 

Yes. We now have a situation where German research institutes are saying they are no longer inclined to apply for European money because it’s too expensive and too burdensome. They rely on Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) grants because it’s easier to get them. 

And therefore we are at a crucial point. European research cooperation is so important so why isn’t it quicker, less burdensome and less expensive? We put European research at stake if we can’t resolve these questions. 

The role of private companies in research and innovation policy is important to you. Is there a danger that the research agenda is drifting towards focusing on applied research at the expense of basic research projects? 

PF7 was marked by the aim to widen participation of small and medium-sized enterprises. This is another frustration. The figures we have now – which are only for the health domain – show we did not succeed in this. What we need is more applied research coming from enterprises looking to solve the questions they have. We put in legislation to strengthen public-private partnerships. 

I’m really keen on knowing how much money they generated from industrial research but it’s a little too early to tell right now. There are no figures yet but don’t worry, I will be asking! In terms of what kind of research we should fund, it’s a question of where you want to go. We have much more basic research than applied research. I appreciate that you have to fund basic research but perhaps we have to try to make it more balanced. 

Of course, all of these procedures are dependent on the proposals coming from universities and small and medium-sized enterprises. Therefore it’s important to encourage SMEs to apply for the grants. But if we don’t make the procedures less burdensome, they will not ask for the grants and they won’t do applied research. We should strengthen applied research and to do so we need to have the procedures to encourage participation. 

How can life be made easier for researchers who are awarded funding? 

The universities are worried about how the Commission has managed the past six frameworks. One of the key issues is how payment for research staff is calculated. Until now, financing for staff was paid at a flat rate, but now they ask you to recalculate the real cost of human resources at the end of each project. Imagine what this means for hundreds of thousands of projects. 

The problem is that the Commission saw that the difference between reimbursing a flat rate and giving exact costs at the end can be up to 10%. The problem, according to the Commission, is that the research organisations may make a profit. I’m sorry to say this may happen, but I’m not really that worried about it. 

I have also tabled an amendment saying that the Commission should set up a hotline for those who ask for grants. This would help them through the burdensome process of filling out forms and applying for grants. However the Commission has refused this very clearly. 

Is it easy to comply with guidelines once funding is secured? 

No, it’s quite complicated. We have five DGs granting research funding and each has a different procedure. They have completely different forms, manuals and conditions. I have asked that this be unified into a single procedure. 

Researchers also have to comply with rules set out in a ‘living’ manual. At the moment, the manual may change during the time when you are going through the procedure. And, as a beneficiary, you have to make sure that you adapt to the latest changes. Therefore they have to spend time ensuring that their proposal takes account of changes as they happen. I put an amendment down saying the manual should not change. 

The Commission took it on board but the problem now is that other new documents are coming out all the time. This means that those people who work on grant applications cannot learn from their errors. They will go on making new errors because the system keeps changing. Finally, it’s frustrating that it can take up to 550 days to find out whether your application has been successful. This must be done more quickly. 

You have spent a lot of time trawling through the fine details of the research budget. With the elections on the horizon, are you concerned that your work in this area will not resonate with your electorate? 

From time to time, we have to do things which the broader public does not understand. The future of European research is too important so it can’t be a question of only doing things for which people will thank you. I do it for the researchers because they are crucial for the future of Europe. Out of seven top Germany universities, my region, Baden-Württemberg, has four. Once a year I invite all the universities and research institutes from and they report their experiences and that’s how I have become aware of the practical difficulties they face. 

What are the other priorities of German electorate? 

People in my region want to know about enlargement. They don’t want us to enlarge and they certainly do not want Turkey to be allowed to join. The issue of possible Turkish accession is a key question for us. The problem is that we all know how the Council works and what will happen in the night when they want decide on Croatia. Those who want to bring in Croatia will be faced with demands for progress on the Turkish question. Then Slovenia might raise objections and Poland will bring up Ukraine. In the end there will be a big package and I am fearful of this and therefore I recommend a very clear attitude saying simply ‘No’: No to enlargement for the moment. 

Is enlargement moving too quickly? 

I want to strengthen our internal cohesion between member states. Europe does not really exist anymore and European legislation is at stake. When you have member states who are unable to take over the European legislation – the European Community is a community of law – then it’s the end. If you continue enlarging you should know that it is no longer a community of law but it becomes something else. 

What are constituents asking on the doorsteps? Do you detect a growing Euroscepticism? 

The question from voters is ‘What have you done to ensure that our money is well spent by the EU?’ As a budget controller I can tell them a lot of things and they usually feel more confident when they go out than when they came in. 

The role of Europe in the world and how to deal with integration are also very important. Can they be confident that Europe will protect their welfare? However, we know that half of the German people do not know that we are electing a new European Parliament this year. 

Why do voters not feel connected to Europe? 

Part of the problem is that we have no time to communicate with voters. We have 41 session weeks – the Bundestag has 20. I spent eight years in my regional parliament and I had a population of 100,000 voters. Now I have 800,000 voters and the conditions are completely different. 

That’s why visitors meetings are so important for us. I’m unhappy that there’s no structure for welcoming visitors to the Commission. For every group that comes, I have to have a programme. Every month, I have between 300 and 500 people visiting Brussels. 

When they see that Europe is run by human beings, it helps a lot. We have to professionalise this area. It’s not sufficient to print a brochure or buy a spot on the TV. 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe