Scientists will face less paperwork under a new bureaucracy-cutting plan outlined by the European Commission yesterday (29 April), which also aims to make it easier for small businesses to tap into European research funds.
EU research represents 5% of overall public spending in Europe. Funding programmes are always oversubscribed but there is concern 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 take 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 the cutbacks. With shrinking pots of money available to researchers in EU member states, multi-billion euro 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).
Red tape has proven a major turn-off for top-class researchers who fear being overwhelmed by the onerous audit requirements that accompany EU support.
Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, EU commissioner for research, innovation and science, says she wants scientists “to spend more time in the lab and less time in the office”.
Geoghegan-Quinn has launched a detailed proposal designed to make EU-funded research projects more attractive.
She noted that almost 11,000 people had signed a petition demanding that funding be based on trust rather than tick-box auditing.
“I agree with every single word. And SMEs are telling us almost the same thing – they want to take part, but some are hesitating over the administrative burden,” said the commissioner.
Simplified application and payment systems
Geoghegan-Quinn said some changes are already under way in areas like reducing form-filling, improved IT tools and clearer guidance for applications.
She said a new financial regulation, due to be introduced next month, will pave the way for more radical changes.
The Commission wants to pay researchers and companies based on average costs, rather than forcing them to account separately for all of their costs and for each task performed by staff.
More flat-rate reimbursements will be used and there will be more cash prizes for scientists, which give more freedom. Geoghegan-Quinn told EurActiv that if the prize money turns out to be more than the cost of the research project, scientists or companies will be allowed keep the excess and reinvest it in other R&D projects.
Harmonisation of accounting methods
The new rules will push member states towards greater harmonisation of accounting methods fro research funding. The Commission will allow projects to use the same methods for EU schemes as for national funding projects, on the basis that using one accounting method instead of two will save time and reduce errors.
The detailed proposals will require a decision from the European Parliament and European Council, according to the commissioner. She said some of the changes can come into force without delay but others will have to wait until the new framework research programme kicks off in 2014.
Geoghegan-Quinn said she wants to see “radical changes” in the administration of projects, including a shift towards paying scientists to meet an agreed set of objectives and paying the full amount depending on their success in hitting these targets.
“The bottom line is this. The Framework Programme is not a programme for accountants or bureaucrats. It is a programme for scientists and innovators,” the commissioner said.
New name for FP8
The research commissioner has also launched a comprehensive review of all aspects of FP7, led by a group of independent experts. Led by Swedish research expert Rolf Annerberg, the panel will present a report to the EU executive this autumn.
The commissioner described research as a short-term stimulus for job creation as well as a long-term investment. The current research funding programme, known as FP7, has improved the efficiency of solar cells and brought companies together to develop innovative cancer treatments, she said.
“I’m talking about results that improve people’s lives – and sometimes save people’s lives,” she said, but acknowledged that the public is often unaware of the science supported by the EU.
To help combat this, Geoghegan-Quinn announced for the first time that she is looking at renaming the clumsily-titled FP7 in order to make it more meaningful to citizens.
“We need a new name, so we can get the message of success across to more people. A name which captures the imagination, so we can communicate European research better. Let’s think about it,” she said.
- May 2010: New financial regulation to be published.
- Autumn 2010: Review of FP7 completed.
- Autumn 2010: Commission to publish Research and Innovation Plan.
- Autumn 2010: European Council summit to focus on innovation.