Olivier Küttel is a director at Euresearch in Switzerland and co-founder of the Trust Researchers campaign.
He was speaking to Gary Finnegan.
What prompted you to set up the ‘Trust Researchers’ campaign?
The administrative burden in European research funding has constantly increased over the years despite many attempts towards simplification. We felt that the floor should be given to the researchers, given that they are the users of the funding system. To date they have not really been able to express their experiences and needs, with the exception of some specific expert groups.
How many researchers have signed and how many countries are represented?
We started on 1 February and already have more than 6,700 researchers from 41 countries. Our main interest is to inform all researchers interested in European research funding. This is not an easy task. Once they know about it, the message seems to spread like a snowball and many sign up.
Is your main concern that researchers are spending too long on paperwork or are you also concerned about making research funds more accessible to SMEs?
Actually both are important. Researchers in academia complain about the time they have to spend on administration. We are not at all against rules but they have to be reasonable, logical and as light as possible.
And the situation is even worse for SMEs. It is a political goal of the European Commission that the Framework Programme, just to take the most known European programme, involves 15% SME participation. However, SMEs do not find it very attractive. The heavy burden of administration and cumbersome financial rules makes their lives really difficult. Time to contract is too long – it takes roughly one year – and once a project is running, too much time has to be spent on reporting input factors. Simplification and streamlining is one of the key elements to boosting SME involvement.
Do you find Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn’s comments on cutting red tape in FP7 and FP8 encouraging?
Yes, definitely. Actually this declaration should support the commissioner’s efforts to simplify the rules. Knowing that thousands of researchers in Europe are asking for a change should assure her in whatever measures towards simplification she is undertaking.
However, the will of the new commissioner is still limited by the rules set out by the political bodies. Our declaration asks the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to change the rules on how research is funded. To put it differently, it just does not make sense to fund research by using the same rules as are applied for giving subsidies to the agricultural sector, or like procurement processes.
What do you say to the argument that oversight is needed in order to account for public money? Researchers are only human – is trust really enough when we’re dealing with large amounts of funding?
The declaration is not against accounting rules. We need rules. The question is which rules. There are many good examples in different member and associated states of how research can be funded and how the accountability can be guaranteed while still having a reasonable level of paperwork and administration. Actually there are several expert groups working on best practice of accountability right now.
And let’s add one other important aspect. Europe compares always itself with the US, Japan and China on whatever subject: research performance, innovation, percentage of R&D spending, you name it. Why should we not compare rules on how research is funded? There is something to learn from the member states too. This petition is about readjusting the right balance of trust and necessary rules assuring accountability.
What specific changes do you propose? When should these be implemented?
We do not have the resources necessary to propose detailed changes. Our declaration is on a more general level. That’s how we can contribute to this debate. We are pointing to the most significant weak points. There are many expert groups in charge of dealing with the issues in the necessary detail, knowing that the “devil is in the detail”. There is nothing more complicated than simplifying complex approaches, we are aware of that.
Changes have to happen as early as possible. The Commission can and will propose changes which could be implemented within a short time limit. Changing rules though is a political process which takes time, particularly when there is a change of culture needed. But they should definitely be in place for FP8.
What’s the next step for the Trust Researchers campaign? Are you hoping to meet with the commissioner to outline your position?
Well, that would be a good signal towards Europe’s research community. Since it is addressed to them, the Declaration will be handed over to the European Parliament and the Council. Let’s see what will be possible and how many researchers will sign.