Scientists at Europe's leading research universities have expressed concern over the growing trend towards linking EU funding with pre-defined outcomes. Researchers fear political priorities will curb their scope for creativity and free thinking.
EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has pledged to simplify European funding programmes and proposed asking scientists to meet certain goals in return for European support.
However, in a detailed analysis published this week (7 June), the League of European Research Universities (LERU) offered a mixed response to the European Commission's recent efforts to streamline the Framework Programme for science.
Stijn Delauré, EU policy advisor at the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), cautioned against "a radical shift towards output-based research funding".
"We fear that the relevant administrative burden would just relocate from the institution's administration to the researchers themselves," he said.
Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn suggested in an interview with EURACTIV last month that some researchers could be given lump sums if they deliver results. However, she also noted that scientists could still be paid even if their research does not work as planned, provided that independent experts adjudge their research to be excellent (EURACTIV 08/05/10).
She also suggested using prizes more frequently in order to get around the onerous accounting requirements that come with EU grants. This too met with some resistance from universities as it is not seen as a steady source of ongoing funding.
LERU said it strongly supports many of the proposals put forward in the EU's communication on simplification and called for additional resources to be given to the European Research Council (ERC).
The elite university group backs a "trust-based approach" to funding with less reporting back to Brussels. They urged the EU executive to scrap timesheets which currently require some scientists to account for every hour they spend on a particular project.
There was also concern that "directed, top-down research" linked to grand societal challenges could limit the scope for scientist-led initiatives which are "the key to tackling unknown challenges in the future".
Delauré also urged policymakers to maintain the current balance between academia and business, amid ongoing calls for closer university-industry links. He also stressed the need for scientists to be radical.
"There are serious drawbacks to output-based research, depending on how success is defined. What if a project fails because of the inherently risky nature of science? The absence of a result can be a result. Our fear is that this approach could discourage bold research, leading instead to low-risk research because it's more likely to succeed," Delauré said.