The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Office of Science and Technology consultation on the 7th EU R&D Framework Programme. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with considerable experience in this area.
The specific questions identified by the consultation paper are now addressed below:
Question 1: What is the rationale for the Framework Programme? Is the current €19bn budget appropriate? Which areas of the Programme have the strongest rationale and which should be assigned lower priority?
The Framework Programmes have enabled new/further science to be done, increased the size and impact of the UK Science programmes, encouraged and strengthened collaborations across the Community to our mutual benefit. The collaborations have brought into the UK new knowledge and new skills, and driven up the level of knowledge and skills in Europe .
In terms of priority areas for the programme, three important areas will be the new and emerging areas of science and technology (NEST), mobility for academia and industry, and the Science and Society programme. This latter has been neglected too long and damage to the public perception of science has been done. Programmes aimed at Small to Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) will also be important to Scotland in order to increase the current low level of research being carried out by such companies.
Question 2: What evidence can you suggest on the key issues to be addressed in the new Programme? In which areas of the Programme is there evidence that it is working well or that it needs to function better?
The new Framework Programme must strike an appropriate balance between applied research/R&D and untargeted fundamental research which will underpin future generations of applied research. It must strike a balance between top-down, directed priorities and responsive mode, allowing researchers to build on unexpected recent discoveries and sudden improvements in techniques/technologies. It must attract excellent researchers and focus on research excellence. It should focus on areas where a Europe-wide effort or European-scale initiative is appropriate.
Greater effort also needs to be made in improving the administrative efficiency of the application process, with a greater frequency of calls and shorter decision times. A second issue is the increasing burden of administrative activity placed on programme co-ordinators by the EU. Such programme co-ordinators are largely liable for research contract under-performance, but have little real capability to ensure the timeous delivery of outcomes from their European partners. Indeed, within Framework 6, where substantial centres of excellence are envisaged, the legal and administrative burdens placed upon the co-ordinating institutions are heavy.
Question 3: How strong is the case for a major increase in EU funding to improve excellence in basic research? Is basic research a priority compared with applied research? Should new support for basic research involve a requirement to collaborate across borders or, as is proposed, award grants to individual teams? Do the proposed criteria look appropriate ones to apply when judging proposals for a basic research action?
There is a strong case to increase in EU funding to improve excellence in basic research through an European Research Council (ERC) to provide support for high-quality, long-term, curiosity-driven research, based more on scientific decision, as opposed to political decision, devoid of the principle of "juste retour", and as such providing funding for the top research excellence in the European Research Area.
There is a danger that this work is undervalued, but such research is the "seed-corn" that underpins the next generation of applied research. While it is natural for the EU to look for projects that will have a impact on the lives of the populations of member states in a tangible way, this has arguably led to the support of results-based short to medium-term research at the expense of very little long-term perspectives.
Funding from a European Research Council should be focused on transnational research that inevitably crosses national boundaries, such as marine pollution and global warming or on those programmes and areas that cannot be supported by the individual states within the EU and that require concerted inter-state interactions. For example, when the cost or specialisation of a research base cannot reasonably be supported by a single state (particle physics and astronomy are traditional examples but the impact of technology now extends strongly into the biological sciences).
In terms of selection criteria, we support the proposed focus on complementarity with the Framework Programme, scientific excellence, peer review, minimised bureaucracy and full cost funding, although we would suggest that full cost funding should be the first priority, and complementarity with the Framework Programme, the last.
Question 4: What should be the role for the European Community in funding scientific infrastructure development and maintenance? What is the best arrangement to support more strategic decision making on future research facilities and funding?
There is a need for increased funding for scientific infrastructure, however, infrastructure development fits badly into four year frameworks and science suffers when it is used as a political lever. For example, the EU has failed to put order into synchrotron light sources. Nevertheless, across the EU, strategic decisions could be based on consultation with the professional and learned bodies in each member country, or an autonomous body, such as the ERC, could be tasked to do the strategic decision making.
Question 5: What are your views on the human resources and mobility activities in the Framework Programme? Do you have any ideas for new activities (e.g. those that might encourage “brain gain” from third countries or foster inter-sectoral mobility in industry)?
More of the Framework Programme budget could be committed to training, the spread of best practice and facilitating researcher mobility which would also help other motives in the European agenda, such as the general Bologna process to harmonise higher education across Europe. However, care will need to be taken not to enforcing mobility on young scientists as it is hard for those with caring responsibilities to be mobile, and a work-life balance should feature in European circles as well as in the UK . In this context, there could be EU funding for internationally collaborative programmes which funded stay-at-home fellowships, but with travel for short visits to international partners.
Question 6: How can the Framework Programme be made more attractive to industry and increase private sector R&D investment?
In realising the Lisbon goal of research and technological development (R&D) investment in the EU approaching 3 % of GDP by 2010, 2% of which coming from industry, it will be important to seek ways of reversing the fall in industrial participation in the Framework Programme. In this context, the issues of streamlining the application process and of cutting bureaucracy will be important in making the Framework Programme more attractive to industry. There would, therefore, be merit in focusing some Framework funding instruments more clearly on industrial involvement to facilitate their involvement, while recognising the needs of university sector involvement in other Framework funding instruments, for example in basic research in support of policy areas.
Question 8: What should be done to make the Framework Programme better focused on exploitation and spin out?
There is a big positive role for EU to sort out the patents issue across the EU. EU research and development collaborations with goodwill run into great difficulties over issues of IPR and patents and much effort is wasted. A reform of patent law is needed and, the model for IPR agreements developed between Universities Scotland & Scottish Enterprise’s Intermediary Technology Institutes (ITIs) could provide a useful template.
Question 10: What criteria should be applied for identifying the S&T priorities for FP7?
Science and Technology priorities should be responsive to trends and developments (e.g. the growth in computing power and the consequent ability to understand better complex systems, the development of nano-technologies, genetic data bases); recognise needs (e.g. climate change, health care (e.g. drug delivery, regenerative medicine) and encourage interdisciplinary activities (provided there are sound ways of assessing proposals in such areas).
Question 11: What is the future role of EU funding in supporting links between Member State programmes? Which mechanisms are best suited for this purpose and how might they develop?
The EU R&D policy should recognise and respond to the creation of the ERA. However, in supporting links between Member States’ programmes there is a danger of creating too many, sub-critical, co-ordinating European bodies. The EU needs to consult widely in advance of Framework 7 with existing European bodies such as ALLEA (All European Academies), European Science Foundation and discipline specific bodies such as the European Physical Society.
Question 12: Could the European Technology Platform concept be expanded to a wider range of technologies in FP7?
Renewable energy could be considered as a possible topic for a European Technology Platform.
Question 13: Which options would you support for funding collaborative R&D?
The options of reducing and improving the number of instruments; developing new instruments to support basic research, and expanding the New and Emerging Science and Technology programme, should be the priorities, along with greater transparency in the decision making process.
Question 14: Are there barriers facing business and the science base in effective engagement with EU research programmes? How can the UK more effectively influence and benefit from EU research funding and policies? How could management and administrative procedures be changed to make it easier for UK organisations to participate?
Barriers to engagement
Figures from participation in the Framework 5 programme in 2000 showed the UK to be doing reasonably well, with UK participants in more than 50% of all funded projects and a 16.54% participation rate (slightly higher than nearest competitors Germany and France) and with total income to UK participants amounting to 17.7% of FP5 spending, against a ‘juste retour’ of 15.8%.
However, this is not a straightforward issue. In a purely financial sense, universities do poorly from European framework funds, since almost all universities utilise the marginal cost contract approach rather than the shared cost contract. Marginal cost contracts offer only a small contribution to the indirect costs incurred by universities in carrying out research, and on a purely financial basis undoubtedly require subsidy from the universities' core income. A difficulty here is the different way in which university research is funded in different parts of Europe; in many European countries, the state makes available matching funding for EU framework contracts, effectively to compensate universities for the indirect costs of support. This does not, however, happen in the UK . The 20% overhead figure imposed on framework contracts is, therefore, a compromise which leaves UK universities substantially out of pocket and the full economic costs or a high percentage of them should be paid by the EU instead.
Most UK universities, however, have taken the decision to subsidise Framework research contracts on the basis that the strong and worthwhile collaborations and research networks that have developed throughout Europe have immense intangible benefits. Examples of this are raising the level of research performed, enhancing the research capacity, developing some genuinely 'European' young scientists and collaborations of continuing character, and levering additional funds from other research funders. These intangible advantages outweigh the poor financial rewards from earlier Framework programmes, but will come into conflict with Government proposals to move to a full cost model of university research funding. In addition, discussions with the EU Commission should be undertaken on the use of the UK's proposed Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) methodology for use in the Full Cost model in their Framework Programmes, as the original TRAC methodology was unacceptable to the European Commission as being far to broad-brush in nature.
Both the Universities and the private sector speak often of the disincentives to taking up Framework Programme research. These are partly bureaucratic: too much form-filling, and lots of delay. This is exacerbated by a tendency to late payment by the Union institutions. Smaller private sector bodies may find it too risky to take up projects with European funding because of possible acute cash-flow problems. On the issue of time-frames, the RSE believes that the main criticism has related to the time between submitting an application and signing of a contract. However, in the time frame of a project itself, it is often the need to change a workplan according to the evolving field which has caused delays, sometimes necessitating lengthy contract amendments. The Commission appears to be trying to address this problem in FP6 through autonomy for consortia to evolve workplans within the new instrument projects. Nevertheless, obtaining information on the progress of an application can also be very difficult and frustrating as Commission staff often seem overstretched. Although the EU Commission has formalised processes, the approach taken both by different scientific areas and by different desk officers can vary substantially.
Another special difficulty in the UK results because of currency fluctuations between the Euro and the Pound. The 20% overhead provided is too small to cover this risk, given that it is also needed to pay overhead and infrastructure costs.
The Government has promoted a fair amount of public activity in the UK , involving its own officials and invited representatives from the European Commission, in respect of raising awareness of the opportunities in FP6, as has happened with previous Framework Programmes. However, within the university sector there is widespread concern over the lack of a clear strategy for Higher Education Institutions with regard to UK priorities in the bidding process and as a result the UK may see its role diminished especially with regard to the co-ordination of Integrated Projects and Networks of Excellence. A Scottish FP6 Focus Group was formed in November 2001 with the aim of developing and implementing a Scottish framework for FP6 promotion and support in order to maximise Scottish involvement in FP6 projects and has launched two support programmes aimed at SMEs and universities respectively. These are the Scottish Proposal Assistance Fund, through the Innovation Relay Centre, IRC Scotland, and the Proposal assistance for co-ordination of European Framework Programme VI research projects (PACER), through the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.
The UK could also drive up the UK share of applications, by considering instituting some incentives. For example, if the EU will not provide full economic costs, then the Government should consider making up the full economic cost of successful proposals for UK participants.
In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: UK Science and Europe: Value for Money (January 2003); The Sustainability of University Research: A consultation on reforming parts of the Dual Support system (September 2003) and Science and innovation: working towards a ten-year investment framework (April 2004).