Top researchers fear ‘radical shift’ in EU policy

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.

Clara de la Torre, inter-institutional relations and coordinator of the Framework Programme at the European Commission, said the process of shaping the next FP8 programme was beginning. It will, she said, have a reasonable mixture of top-down and bottom-up research and will be more efficient than the current programme, FP7.

"The Commission has made several important changes aimed at simplifying the procedures. In the longer term we will make more use of lump sums, as has been suggested by the Court of Auditors," said de la Torre, noting that not everyone is in favour of such a move.

She revealed that the Commission is thinking of applying the results-based approach in some pilot projects in 2011 under FP7 to see how it would work for FP8.

Portuguese MEP Maria da Graça Carvahlo (European People's Party), who has a track record as a science minister and Commission advisor on research, said her appointment to the European Parliament's committee on financial perspectives indicates that R&D will be part of the discussion.

She said improving education standards is essential so that member states have the capacity to absorb investment in science, and noted the need for researcher-led investigations.

"Meeting the societal challenges defined by politicians will be one of the focuses but it's also important to fund frontier research so we are prepared to face new unknown challenges," said da Graça Carvahlo.

She also said she is concerned by efforts to link funding to results. "I'm very worried. The current officials have good intentions but you never know who will follow. From a researcher's point of view, the fear is that if your result doesn't match the goal set by policymakers, you will enter into endless discussions to get paid for your work. We need to trust researchers more," she said.

Michael Wilson of University College London said he is a great supporter of the Framework Programmes and welcomed the opportunity to work with other researchers across Europe.

However, he said researchers are "radical freethinkers" who have a natural antipathy to bureaucracy. "As researchers we want money to do research. I want trust and flexibility to alter things as I see fit, without having to write reports to managers. Science is not static, it's not linear," said Wilson.

He said he accepts that he has to be accountable to those who fund his work and to publish his work in the interest of society. However, he slammed the EU's accounting procedures, labelling them a "total nightmare".

Timesheets, said Wilson, are naïve and pointless. "It's not a clock-on clock-off factor," he said.

"I'd like to see more transparency in how the grand challenges and projects are chosen. I'm also uneasy when it comes to goal-oriented funding. It could lead to a cautious approach, with researchers tending towards conservative, deliverable targets rather than taking on adventurous, ground-breaking work," Wilson said.

Nonetheless, Wilson said European scientists are now encouraged to collaborate across borders, something that was almost impossible 30 years ago when he started his career.

Kurt Deketelaere, secretary-general of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), said the 3% R&D spending target included in the Europe 2020 strategy is to be welcomed but should now be given more legal weight.

"We want the 3% put into a directive to give it a legal framework with legal consequences," he said.

EU research represents 5% of overall public spending in Europe. Funding programmes are always oversubscribed, but there are concerns that world-class researchers think European money comes with too many strings attached.

Researchers complain that EU research programmes burden them with too much red tape (EURACTIV 24/03/10). This has made European grants less attractive to top scientists, who frequently opt for national funding rather than taking on the complex task of meeting EU audit criteria (EURACTIV 05/02/09).

However, the economic crisis has strained public finances across Europe and research budgets are not immune from cutbacks. With shrinking pots of money available to researchers in EU member states, multi-billion EU R&D budgets may become more attractive.

Another frequent complaint is that small businesses find it difficult to access big EU research programmes. 80% of SMEs applying for European research funding are turned down, a fact which discourages high-tech start-ups from applying for funding in the first place (EURACTIV 02/10/09).

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU commissioner for research, innovation and science, has committed to cutting the amount of paperwork researchers face, pledging to keep them "in the lab, not in the office" (EURACTIV 30/04/10).

  • 2007-2013: Framework Programme 7 (FP7).
  • 2014-2020: Framework Programme 9 (FP8).

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