UK Science and Europe: Value for Money

UK Science and Europe: Value for Money

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into UK Science and Europe: Value for Money. 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 experience of EU Framework research funding.

The specific questions identified by the Inquiry are addressed below:

Is the UK getting value for money from the Framework Programmes?
Value for money is often equated to ‘juste retour’ – i.e. do we get more back than we put in, financially? A recent European Commission analysis of the 5th Framework Programme (FP5) in 2000, its halfway stage, showed:

Total percentage of FP5 applications funded  28%
Total HEI participation  33%
Total projects with UK participants  55%
Total UK participation in projects 16.54%
(D 16.51%; F 14.98%)
Total projects with UK Co-ordinator  17%
Total income to UK participants  17.7%
('juste retour’ 15.8%) 
 
At that point, the UK appears to be doing reasonably well from FP5 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.

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. For example, 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. However, there remain a broad range of opinions on issues such as whether the programmes lead to appropriate and exploitable outcomes, whether there is enough basic research, whether the right disciplines are included and excluded, and whether there is too much politics overriding science.

Is the Government doing enough to promote the participation of UK research establishments and industry in the Sixth Framework Programme and the European Research Area?
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, not enough is being done to support the participation of Scottish higher education institutions (HEIs). Within the University sector there is widespread concern over the lack of a clear strategy for HEIs 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 by the Scottish Executive with representation from Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scotland Europa, Scottish Enterprise Cluster Teams and Innovation Relay Centres Scotland with the aim of developing and implementing a Scottish framework for FP6 promotion and support in order to maximise Scottish involvement in FP6 projects. This objective has, however, been frustrated in HEIs by delays in funding the development of bids and the requirement to ensure small to medium sized enterprise (SME) involvement, as well as the Innovation Relay Centre, IRC Scotland, focusing primarily on SME interests. In terms of the administration of the proposed support scheme, there is a case for treating research institutions (who have done well from previous framework programmes) in the same manner as the SME sector. There is also a concern that insisting on Scottish SME involvement in HEI proposals could constrain the pursuit of scientific excellence (the foremost FP6 evaluation criterion) in developing some proposals. In this context the Royal Society of Edinburgh will be joining the Group to provide advice in relation to the involvement and interests of the academic sector and balancing that with business interests.

Is the process for obtaining EU funds sufficiently transparent and straightforward?
The process appears to be as transparent and straightforward as possible, given the volume and variety of issues that Framework Programmes must encompass and address. The process itself and the evaluation criteria are published in advance and each co-ordinator receives a copy of the evaluation summary for their project. However, the application processes nevertheless range from complex to impenetrable and involve the completion of large numbers of forms. Obtaining information on the progress of an application can also be very difficult and frustrating as Commission staff often seem overstretched. Although the EC has formalised processes, the approach taken both by different scientific areas and by different desk officers can vary substantially. A simplified process has been promised for FP6. At present, the sheer weight of forms necessary to apply for even small grants (e.g. conference funds) acts as a deterrent to their use.

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.

Is there continuity between successive Framework Programmes?
By shifting from a broad coverage of funded research (FP5) to a very clearly focused programme (FP6) where many research areas are omitted, and by introducing new instruments (Integrated Projects and Networks of Excellence) to account for 70% of the spend, there is certainly a break in continuity. The External Project Management under FP6 has created uncertainty and the new instruments, in general, also contribute to discontinuity.

What is the potential impact of EU enlargement, and what changes are needed for Framework 7?
The first area of the European Union to include fully the Candidate Countries was Research. These countries were, in principle at least, able to fully participate in FP5 and their participation was actively encouraged. We have, therefore, seen some of the impact of their participation. Many organisations in these countries have little funding, particularly for research, poor research infra-structure and poor financial management processes. This increases the risk and administrative burden placed on UK organisations when working in collaboration with organisations in these countries and will inevitably militate against research networks extending into the accession states without proactive management by the EU.

More of the Framework Programme budget may also be committed to training and the spread of best practice, with the primary deliverable being integration rather than new knowledge, and with less available for funding cutting edge research. The new FP6 Networks of Excellence are, arguably, a step in this direction. Similarly, facilitating researcher mobility, via the Marie Curie type of programme would also help other motives in the European agenda, such as the general Bologna process to harmonise higher education across Europe.

Is the process for the selection of priority areas and the awarding of funding to projects fair: is the balance between pure and applied research right; and are the time frames for funding projects adequate?
One longstanding criticism in relation to priority areas has been that there has been too little funding for social sciences and the humanities. The process for selection of priority areas has also had some unfortunate consequences. For example, in tropical medicine for developing countries only a few major diseases are selected (e.g. HIV, malaria, TB). However, these are exactly the same areas which are being heavily funded by other global agencies, and this may not be the wisest use of EU funds. The problem is not in prioritising the most devastating killer diseases, but excluding funding for any of the other diseases which in aggregate cause more deaths than the "major" diseases. The same situation pertains to asthma, an epidemic in Europe which is not covered in the health theme (other than in epidemiology and policy-making).

In terms of the balance between pure and 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.

On the issue of time-frames, the RSE believes that the main criticism have related to the time between submitting an application and signing of a contract. 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.

What should UK policy be towards the proposals for a European Research Council?
A European Research Council is variously proposed (e.g. by the European Research Area (ERA)) as something intended to help break down the perceived fragmentation of European research by providing 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 ERA.

In this context, questions are raised as to where such a Research Council would stand beside the Framework Programmes and beside the national research councils. In general, countries with large effective research bases wish to see these preserved whilst smaller countries with ineffective research bases favour the development of stronger European facilities. The RSE's belief is that the UK would wish to see any European Research Council complement, and add to, rather than replace or draw resources from, UK national Research Councils.

Hitherto, applications for Framework Programmes have been judged both by permanent officials, in order to ensure strategic added value and by standard scientific peer review, based upon ad hoc panels. Clearly, a European Research Council operating purely on the scientific merit of proposals which put more emphasis on long-term research, but in a way which also added to, and complemented, the work programmes of the Research Councils, would have considerable attraction for universities. Certainly, if a European research council were to be set up its remit should be limited to 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 technology of impact now extends strongly into the biological sciences) or transnational research that inevitably crosses national boundaries, such as marine pollution and global warming.

 

Follow Us: