Research agency: Competition for SME funds is ‘fierce’


Four out of five small firms applying for European research funding are turned down, but participation rates are on the rise, Graham Stroud, director of the newly-established Research Executive Agency (REA), told EURACTIV in an interview.

Graham Stroud is director of the Research Executive Agency. 

He was speaking to Gary Finnegan. 

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

The REA is now an autonomous body. What difference does it make to its operation and to whom is it accountable? 

Our operational and administrative autonomy acquired last June means that we are now responsible for the whole project cycle of those parts of the FP7 specific programmes delegated to us by the European Commission. 

In addition, we provide an evaluation and participant validation service to the rest of FP7. But apart from greater efficiency – we hope – the only visible changes for the research community should be a new letterhead and a new contracting body in grant agreements. 

The REA has its own legal personality now, but is supervised and controlled by the Commission, in particular by the directorates-general that have research portfolios: DG RTD and DG ENTR are the parent DGs, DG INFSO and DG TREN have observers roles on the REA’s Steering Committee. Just like the Commission, the REA will be accountable to the budgetary authority (the European Parliament and Council). 

By the way, the REA will be the biggest of all executive agencies. It has a planned staffing of 558 in 2013. 

How large is the REA’s budget? 

The REA will manage a budget of around €1bn each year, rising to some €1.6bn per year in 2013. Over the life of FP7, we will manage research projects to the value of €6.4 billion, comprising €4 billion in the ‘People’ programme, nearly €1 billion of actions for the benefit of SMEs, over €600 million for space research and nearly €800 million for security research. 

Would it be fair to say that the agency has not had a high profile in the past? What can be done to address this? 

Given the fact that the REA was created very recently and has been autonomous only since June this year, it does not have much of a past. But we will rapidly get a much higher profile as we start to deal with the research communities concerned by the programmes we manage, and we fully intend to get better known through our effectiveness and efficiency in doing our work. 

What is your main focus for the FP7?

The agency is responsible for the full implementation of the project cycle for the Marie Curie actions of the People Programme, the SME-specific activities of the Capacities Programme and a large part of the Space and Security themes from the Cooperation Programme of FP7. 

For each of these areas, the agency issues calls for proposals, evaluates the proposals and then negotiates grant agreements with successful applicants. It then administers the grant agreements, checking on the project deliverables and paying the EU contribution to the project partners. 

A separate part of the agency – the FP7 support unit – is in charge of managing the centralised FP7 support activities for most parts of the Framework Programme. This includes running the FP7 evaluation building, receiving proposals and handling the logistics of proposal evaluation, including evaluator contracting and payment, providing a central participant validation service and financial viability checks, as well as running the centralised FP7 enquiry service. 

How do you respond to criticism from SME groups, which suggest that small companies find it difficult to access FP7 funds? 

Our task is to execute specific activities which would normally have been carried out by the European Commission. This means we concentrate on managing research contracts and have no policy remit. This way, we can be more effective and more efficient in addressing our clients’ needs, i.e. the needs of the research communities, including SMEs. That said, there is no shortage of SME applicants for the funding, but the competition is very fierce and only the best projects can be funded. 

Are there any indications that the success rates of SMEs are improving? 

There is a high degree of over-subscription to SME-specific calls for proposals. Over the last two years, there have been five times as many proposals as we can actually fund. This unfortunately means that we have to disappoint 80% of the applicants. Lately, overall SME success rates are 18% in terms of SME applicants and 17% in terms of the requested EC contribution. 

Have the framework programmes become too focused on funding public sector researchers? 

Framework programmes are open to everybody and are not at all restricted to the public sector. Actually, the SME measures in the FP7 are a very good example of this. SMEs now represent 15.5% of participations and 12.6% of the budget rate in the signed grant agreements, and even more – 15.7% and 13.5% in the Cooperation Specific Programme. This brings the FP7 programmes very close to initial target of 15% SME participation. 

The participation rates of the private commercial sector have also been increasing since FP6 and the beginning of FP7. We expect to have 27% of participations and 25% of the requested EC contribution in the signed grant agreements. There is also a strong presence of the Business Enterprise sector: 29% of participations and 26% of the budget share respectively. 

What is the REA doing to improve researchers’ career paths? 

The responsibility for policy remains with the Commission, while the REA executes that policy and feeds data back to the policymakers to make sure that policy is well adapted, efficient and useful to the end users. 

The decent salary and mobility, travel and career allowances that Marie Curie actions offer guarantee that the mobility undertaken will benefit and not burden the fellow, as can often be the case when you move out of your country with or without your family. 

REA will make sure that all these policies are actually implemented by ensuring a high-quality and transparent evaluation of projects, by checking the respect of the contractual terms and also by informing fellows of their own possibilities and potential. Project officers will act in the interest of the fellows and make sure they get the best out of the programme. 

What can be done to counter a ‘brain drain’ of European researchers moving abroad? 

Again, we have the Marie Curie actions that are intended to encourage researchers to be mobile, including returning to Europe when they have finished their stay abroad or are settled elsewhere. Our ‘Reintegration Grants’ are there for precisely that purpose; they assist experienced researchers with professional reintegration into a research career after a transnational mobility experience both in and outside Europe. 

Is the REA concerned with the impact of attracting researchers to Europe from developing countries? 

In today’s globalised world, sharing knowledge is essential, especially for developing countries. This is why most Marie Curie actions are open to all citizens of any nationality from around the world. Any researcher whether postgraduate or postdoctoral can come to Europe and be trained in a particular scientific area. 

There is also a possibility for a return phase to their home countries in order to avoid brain drain in developing countries where highly qualified researchers are needed to contribute to development. This option is available for researchers from International Cooperation Partner Countries. An important task of the REA will be to advertise these possibilities in third countries. 

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