Investing in science - EU research and technical development programmes

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2011
microscope with a 500-euro note under lens

Jeremy J. Ramsden, Chair of Nanotechnology at
Cranfield University, UK, gives his thoughts on the
EU research and technical development programmes.

From the outside, the European Union’s
research and technical development (RTD)
programmes, especially the successive
Frameworks (we are in number seven) might seem
like a splendid thing for boosting the still woefully
inadequate level of investment in science in Europe,
especially compared with the USA and Japan. This
Framework programme seems good on paper, but
there is widespread dissatisfaction with European
Union research funding. The dissatisfaction is both
bottom-up and top-down, and there is evidence
that the funding delivers far less than it promises.
In this article I shall have a look at that dissatisfaction,
explore some of the reasons for it, and finally
make some suggestions how the situation might
be improved.

It should be pointed out that the Framework
programme is geared towards applied research that
should have a clear economic benefit. This is,
incidentally, not always understood by would-be
applicants, who have sometimes criticised the
programme for not doing enough to support
basic work. The European Research Council was
expressly set up to address that deficiency, but it
is unsatisfactory in other ways and especially by
being too bureaucratic. It also, surprisingly, lacks the
European dimension in the sense that grants are
awarded to individuals. For example, there is no
scheme for supporting two scientists from different
member states to work together on a basic topic.
At present, all they can do is apply separately to
their national funding bodies (possibly mentioning
that they are working with a colleague abroad) with
no guarantee that they will both be funded.

Applied research

Apart from that, the Framework programme appears
to offer resources for applied research. It follows
that commercial firms should be included in the
consortia bidding for funds, as indeed they are –
typically constituting around half the members of
a partnership, the remainder being academic
institutions. We should bear in mind that technical
development of a field is typically an order of
magnitude more expensive than the initial basic
research, which is mostly publicly funded and takes
place in universities and state research organisations.
Since the knowledge resulting from basic research is
usually publicly disseminated in the scientific literature
and available to all, everyone may potentially benefit.
It is the next stage, that of technical development, at
which the benefits from specific investment accrue to
the investor. Yet, strangely – and in marked contrast
to some other technically advanced regions of the world, most notably Japan but also the USA –
European industries have become relatively reluctant
to invest in technical development. Just 40 years
ago, most major companies ran large central
research laboratories and the smaller ones
collectively supported research associations. This
has now become a rarity and the Framework
programmes, ostensibly, fill a much-needed gap
in supporting the technical development that leads
to product innovation, which in turn ensures global
economic competitivity.

Widespread dissatisfaction

The most striking recent expression of bottom-up
dissatisfaction with the system is what might be
called the Vienna Declaration, launched by the
Austrian Research Promotion Agency in February
2010 and entitled ‘Trust Researchers: a Declaration
for the Attention of the European Council of Ministers
and the European Parliament’. It has collected well
over 10,000 signatures from European scientists. The
main grievance is that the financial and administrative
provisions of European funding instruments are far
too complicated and the net effect is to hinder rather
than promote research. The thousands of comments
that have been posted alongside the signatures
reveal deep-seated dissatisfaction. Even though
some efforts have been made by the Directorate
General for Science, Research and Development (DG
XXII) to improve matters in the successive Framework
programmes, the effect has been far too little.
Criticisms include an unsatisfactory application
process (unnecessarily lengthy and complicated
forms, containing too much irrelevant detail), the
already low and further declining quality of the
evaluation process, a success rate (the ratio of
funded proposals to applications) that is
disproportionately low with regard to the immense
effort required to submit a proposal, and both
excessive and ineffectual administrative control of
funded projects.

Top-down criticism comes from the Court of
Auditors. In their 1992 report, they criticised
the processes for taking decisions and
implementing specific programmes as being too
lengthy, which reduced the competitiveness of
industry, and they pointed out the weakness
brought about by the lack of flexibility in financial
management and coordination. Like so many of the
recommendations of the Court of Auditors, these
problems have never been effectually addressed and
remedies implemented.

Assessing effectiveness

As for assessment of the effectiveness of the
Framework funding in delivering significant new
results that materially contribute to boosting
European industry, the EU’s own assessment (the
report Strategic Impact, No Revolution. Ex-Post Evaluation of NMP (FP6) – NMP referring to
nanotechnology, multifunctional materials and new
production processes and devices and FP6 being
the Sixth Framework programme) is lukewarm in its
evaluation. Readers of the monthly publication
research*eu results supplement from the CORDIS
publications office of the European Union are likely to
form a similar impression. Astonishingly, nearly all the
completed projects, which have typically taken three
or four years of effort, are seeking further research
support. Very, very few of them actually result in the
launch of a new product on the market.

One of the problems is that there is no real dialogue
between DG XXII and the scientific community.
Criticism published in the scientific literature, such as
‘A critique of the European Commission’s proposal
for the seventh research framework programme’
(H. Matthews, Nanotechnol. Perceptions 1 (2005)
99-105) have, as far as I have been able to ascertain,
remained unanswered by DG XXII or the research
commissioner. This state of affairs hardly evokes
confidence that the programme will evolve in a
favourable manner.

As for the reasons, many of the fundamentals can
be found in the 12th Report of the House of Lords
Select Committee on the European Communities (HL
Paper 75; London: HMSO, 1994). Within the
European Union generally there is a widespread
‘spending culture’. To combat this, the Union has
set up exceedingly onerous apparatus. While this is
still rather ineffective in tackling the tremendous fraud
in the agricultural and other domains, within the
research programmes it is not only unnecessary
(actual fraud being negligible – most participating
organisations, especially the academic ones,
typically end up having to subsidise Framework
projects) but hinders the work, as already noted by
the Vienna Declaration.

Finding a solution

Can anything be done to remedy the situation?
Relentless criticism by scientists will no doubt help.
There should also be a concerted effort to diminish
the lobbying culture that seems to have taken a
strong foothold in Brussels, and which at present
largely determines the actual content of the individual
parts of the Framework. Perhaps the most valuable
change would be to move to a tendering system.
Since DG XII already seems to form quite definite
ideas about what should be done, research with very
specific goals and perhaps even methods could
be announced, following which consortia simply bid
for the contracts in a far more simplified way than
the present system of proposal submissions, the
mechanism of which comes from the national funding
agencies. At the very least, unsuccessful bidders
will then have no grounds to resent excessive and
mostly unremunerated effort having been spent on
proposal preparation.