EU research networks slowly die away

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Most networks of excellence fall apart once EU funding dries up, according to a damning report by the European Court of Auditors. Billions of euros in European funding has been pumped into research networks in the hope that they will live on after funding expires, but very few are self-sustaining, it said.

The highly critical report published today (14 October) by the Court of Auditors says the EU’s flagship research programme spent €17 billion, almost half its budget, on two types of pan-European project without setting clear objectives. 

The report is likely to raise tensions between the Court of Auditors and the European Commission. 

The Court urges the EU executive to “develop an explicit intervention logic” – and to set a single objective – before backing expensive research networks. However, the Commission hits back in a detailed and terse response published with the report, insisting that its work “has always been based on a sound intervention logic”. 

The report looks at FP6, which ended in 2006, and points to several positive outcomes from EU spending on Networks of Excellence (NoEs), saying new knowledge was created and shared and the quality of work carried out by scientists was generally high. 

An accompanying survey also shows that participants in the networks were satisfied with the results of the work funded through the EU programme. 

However, public research bodies devoted only a small fraction of their research capacities to the network and resisted input from network governance managers on how European money should be spent. 

Networks of Excellence ‘not sustainable’

The most critical comment by the Court of Auditors surrounds the long-term viability of the research networks created by FP6. Groups of scientists, companies and institutions were happy to cooperate while EU money was on the table, but the programme failed to reach the ultimate goal of attracting additional public and private funding, which would have stimulated a self-sustaining network. 

“Only a minority of networks – and none of those visited by the Court in the audit – moved convincingly towards self-sustainable integration with prospects for longer-term survival beyond the ending of EU funding,” said Massimo Vari, a member of the Court. 

He questioned whether this objective was even realistic and said continued financing is an option where sustainable integration is still possible. 

In its response, the Commission noted that the possibility of supporting “certain promising NoEs” is addressed under FP7 on a case-by-case basis. 

This is not the first time that the viability of these research networks has been called into question. Participants in NoEs warned that successful networks would collapse once EU funding had dried up, saying there was a lack of political will among member states and research institutions (EURACTIV 28/11/09). 

SME participation remains low 

The so-called Marimon Report in 2004 said FP6 needed to set clearer goals in order to make NoEs and Integrated Projects more effective, and that the networks must be made more SME-friendly if small businesses are to participate in greater numbers (EURACTIV 23/08/09). 

In line with the EU’s broader pro-enterprise policies, 15% of research funding is earmarked for SMEs. However, this has proven a perennial problem given the expensive and time-consuming administrative procedures involved. 

The Court of Auditors said around 10% of funding was actually channelled to small businesses due to “barriers to entry” such as the complexity of applying for funds. 

Another major obstacle is a requirement to share pre-existing intellectual property with other participants in the NoEs. The European Commission said some of these issues have been addressed in FP7, and points to a range of other programmes such as the Eurostars Joint Programme for SMEs. 

The Court of Auditors recommends that the Commission improves the manageability of projects and speeds up its grant awarding procedure. It also wants to see FP7 use the SMART system of setting goals and measuring performance. 

In response, the Commission said it is challenging to juggle the desire for a speedy disbursement of funds with the need for accountability. It also rejected the use of the SMART system because research projects do not easily fit its “strict definitions”. 

European Court of Auditors member Massimo Vari said the report provides "a picture with light and shade". "The absence of an explicit intervention logic and the imprecise definition of the objectives made it more difficult to monitor performance and evaluate results," he added. 

The European Commission said its work had always been based on sound logic. Under FP7, it said, all work programmes contain expected impact statements, which correspond with the objectives, rationale and activities set out in the specific programmes. "The Commission considers that FP6 was properly monitored and evaluated," it said. 

The EU's multi-billion euro Framework Programmes for research are the single largest public source of research funding in Europe, with an overall share of between 4% and 5% of total public R&D expenditure. Now in its seventh cycle (FP7, 2007-2013), programmes set research priorities for the EU. 

FP6, which ran from 2002 to 2006, sought to address a major weakness of European research, namely its fragmented nature. It aimed to create a European Research Area through two new types of project: Networks of Excellence and Integrated Projects. These two types of project attracted almost 50% of FP6 funding. 

Networks of Excellence were designed to connect experts and resources in particular fields to establish lasting integration between researchers. A total of 167 such projects were funded with an average EU contribution of €7 million. 

The Integrated Projects were to bring together human, technical and financial resources to achieve defined scientific results on a European scale. There were almost 700 of these initiatives, each attracting EU funding of around €9.5 million. 

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