Today, the European Research Council (ERC), is celebrating the award of its 1,000 research grant with much fanfare, as the great and the good of European research gather in Germany to mark this milestone.
Curious then, that there was not so much as a murmur a few days earlier when its counterpart, the Research Executive Agency (REA) – which commands a massive €6.4 billion or 12 per cent of the Framework Programme 7 (FP7) budget – marked its first year as an autonomous body.
Profile: Graham Stroud
A chemical engineer by training, REA Director Graham Stroud has seen the research process from just about every angle. He worked as a researcher in a UK government laboratory before coming to the Commission in 1979 to work as a project officer working on hydrometallurgy.
After three years, he resigned from the Commission, deciding not to be “a bureaucrat for the rest of my life.” He returned to his career as a researcher for a while, before moving into research policy in central government in the UK. From there he was seconded to the European Commission’s DG Research as a national expert. After that came a spell at the UK Research Office in Brussels, and then in 1993 he rejoined the Commission, this time to stay.
Most of his work at the Commission related to the management of research proposals, and in particular he wrote the first evaluation manual for the framework programme’s research programmes.
And REA may only have been fully functioning for one year, but already the agency’s director Graham Stroud has an eye on its future existence, as he told Science|Business.
Like the ERC, REA was set up under FP7. Its remit is to hand out project grants to small and medium-sized enterprises, manage the Marie Curie awards that allow scientists to travel outside their home countries to do research, and to fund space and security research.
Whilst it was initially set up only for the duration of FP7, the door was left open to extend REA’s life to subsequent Framework Programmes. Stroud would clearly like to see that possibility become reality, and he thinks that the agency is on the right track.
“The trends are in the right direction. We are down in terms of time to pay, we’re down in terms of time to make contracts. We are starting to give a good service to the research community,” Stroud said in an interview in his 18th-floor office, which is decorated with posters of his choral and orchestral ventures and boasts a panoramic view of Brussels.
FP7 runs until 2013, but already the shape of its successor is under discussion. A mid-term review of FP7, due out in the autumn, will assess what is working well and what isn’t, and therefore hint at the direction of the next Framework Programme.
Stroud insists that the future of REA is a matter for the Commission, not him, to decide. An initial exchange on the future direction of the agency was one of the topics discussed in a recent meeting between Stroud and Robert-Jan Smits, the newly-appointed director-general of DG Research, who takes over from José Manuel Silva Rodríguez on 1 July.
While the research funded by the ERC spans many disciplines, the Council has a single unifying theme and remit: support only excellent research.
One the other hand, the research projects that REA manages seem a disparate group, I suggest. Stroud responds that there are two common threads, one linking Marie Curie and SMEs, another space and security.
The Marie Curie and SMEs grants are for “high-volume, low-size projects” which differ from most of the Framework Programme in that the individual projects have no specific policy content. “We don’t care what they work on. We don’t care if the research is socio-economic research, nanotechnology, astrophysics, whatever,” Stroud said.
For Marie Curie grants, the policy ambition is to get researchers mobile and advance their careers. For SMEs, the policy ambition is the very involvement of SMEs, regardless of whether a project is in stonecutting, leather working or advanced microelectronics.
The research projects for SMEs that are managed by REA differ from those in the other parts of the Framework Programme. Whereas most other projects involve SMEs participating with larger partners, the REA schemes are designed specifically for SMEs, and in particular those that don’t have their own research capabilities.
“These are projects by SMEs for SMEs,” Stroud says. “They have a common problem which requires some research to solve it.” These projects allow a group of SMEs to come together, and with the support provided by REA, commission a university or other research body to do the research for them, while maintaining the intellectual property rights. The success rate for SME applications is about 20 per cent, which Stroud considers to be about right to ensure the quality of the work being funded is maintained.
The rationale for including space and security in REA is maybe less convincing, since in common with the rest of FP7, funding is given for collaborative projects that meet specific policy objectives. These two fields of research fell to the agency because they were both new areas in FP7, Stroud explained.
“This was a pilot to see how successful you could be in putting out a part of [FP7] which does have strong policy connotations into an executive agency,” Stroud said.
The approach allows the Commission to concentrate on policy making, while REA focuses on the day-to-day management of the projects. Whether the approach is adopted more widely in the next Framework Programme remains to be seen.
“What it will have shown is that if the Commission feels it wants to do this, then I don’t see any practical reasons why they shouldn’t. It’s a purely policy issue, that’s for the Commission to decide,” he said.
The advantage of having the project administration done by an executive agency as a separate legal entity from the European Commission, rather than directly by the Commission largely boils down to staffing issues and costs. The executive agency has a cheaper and more flexible employment structure, with staff taken on for the duration of the project and contracts able to be renewed when needed. With less money spent on salaries, more can go into the actual research, according to Stroud.
As well as managing the four areas highlighted above, the agency also provides logistical services to the entire FP7 (except for the ERC). This includes legal and financial vetting of grant applicants, running an FP7 enquiry service, administering payments to reviewers.
It has taken the Research Executive Agency some time to get up and running. The legal entity was set up in 2007, but couldn’t start its work until Stroud took up his post of director, which he did in July 2008. The first year was spent setting up systems, dealing with administration and recruiting. During this time, the Commission retained responsibility of what is now done by REA. “What autonomy [granted in June 2009] signalled was the Commission saying to the agency…‘we think you are in a state whereby you can take over the running of these programmes,’” said Stroud, who now manages 370 people.
While he has one eye on the long-term future of the agency, what REA’s director would actually like is some stability.
“We’ve had the big upheavals, we’ve had the switchover from the Commission to the agency, we’ve had the arrival of the Lisbon Treaty…What I want right now is a year’s stability, just to let us concentrate on doing our job,” Stroud said.