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Lighten up! Research leader wants less bureaucracy in EU programmes

Horizon 2020’s system of rigid calls and heavy auditing discourages high-risk, high-impact projects, says Ángeles Rodriguez-Peña, as she bows out as head of COST

Ángeles Rodriguez-Peña, outgoing head of COST
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Over the past 40 years, the European Union has grown into one of the biggest funders of science and technology in the world. So now, argues one long time leader in European research policy, it’s time to lighten up.

“The current framework is too prescriptive,” says Ángeles Rodriguez-Peña, president of COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) and a former Spanish ministry official. The EU bureaucracy is too heavy, the system of timed calls and evaluation of grants is too rigid, and the latitude for researchers to take risks is too limited. “We need to give [them] freedom,” she says. 

Her comments, in an interview with Science|Business, come at a time of introspection for the European Commission, as it starts developing the next big plan for research and innovation, Framework Programme 9. The current programme, Horizon 2020 with a €77 billion, seven-year budget, will end in three years – and political uncertainty is mounting over what its successor, starting in 2021, will look like.

So far, Commission planners have been promising some changes in research themes and project types, but relatively little change in the way the programme operates. They say their soundings suggest member state governments and key research organisations are content with the status quo.

Lost in translation

Rodriguez-Peña begs to differ. She is a biologist and former deputy director-general in the Spanish science and education ministry, and since 2010 head of COST, an association formed in 1972 to promote scientific cooperation around Europe and beyond. She stepped down as president on June 21st.

While a strong supporter of EU research efforts, Rodriguez-Peña argues that two elements have been lost in translation as the programmes have grown: freedom and trust.

The current system is based too much on a series of rigidly prescribed calls for proposals, with narrowly defined topics and firm application deadlines. These are then reviewed by a large pool of evaluators, many of whom perform the task year after year. The system makes for predictable proposals that take few risks and, as a result, may have lower impact.

“We are run by the logic of the calls. It puts rigidity into the system,” Rodriguez-Peña said. Instead, she called for the scrapping deadlines and rolling submissions. At the same time, the calls themselves should be broader, allowing more freedom for researchers to surprise with original ideas. They should not specify particular budgets, rather researchers should say how much they need and evaluators judge them in light of that.

Also missing, Rodriguez-Peña says, is trust – of the researchers, entrepreneurs and of the Commission’s own staff. She calls it a mistake for the Commission to require its project officers to take personal responsibility for grant money being properly spent. This creates an atmosphere of extreme caution and that, in turn, makes grant applicants less ambitious.

End the copy-paste

The imposition of personal responsibility means, “Nobody cares to risk anything. There is a tendency to control everything.” Too much time is wasted in auditing minute expenditures, lest any euro be found to have been misspent. “You have to trust the judgment of people,” Rodriguez-Peña says.

The problem is not limited to Brussels. Indeed, one unfortunate side effect of Framework has been a tendency for member states to adopt the same methods in their national programmes. Member state officials, “go back home and copy-paste” the EU administrative system. “Administrators like it. It’s more secure” for them personally.

Instead of copying the EU, member states, particularly in southern and eastern Europe, should be reforming their research and innovation systems. In the south, they should spend more money on research and less on roads. In the east, they should reform old-fashioned academies and ministries that restrict innovation.

To promote real change, Rodriguez-Peña says the most useful thing the EU could do is to fund and encourage more mobility and get researchers and entrepreneurs moving around Europe to see how other countries run labs, classrooms and ventures. “This is the beauty of mobility: so people can see how bosses behave in other places, and then go on to change their own systems,” back home.

In this and other ways the EU should be a leader in freeing up the system for researchers to succeed, says Rodriguez-Peña. “With research and innovation, you are investing for the future. When you invest, you risk.”

Editor’s Note: COST is a member of the Science|Business Network.

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Related subjects: COST, Horizon 2020, FP9