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Call for looser rules in Horizon 2020

Researchers tell MEPs that audit culture, reimbursement system, and evaluation criteria for eastern countries should be reformed

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Research lobbyists gathered on Wednesday to give the European Parliament an appraisal of the €77 billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, and to issue a plea for reform.

Among the ides presented to MEPs serving on the Parliament’s budget committee were a re-think of the way Horizon 2020 beneficiaries get rewarded for their research, a reduction in bookkeeping requirements, and an extra leg-up for countries struggling to win any grant money at all.

As head of research business development and partnerships with Aerospace Honeywell Joeri De Ruytter said one of his main gripes with Horizon 2020 is the model grant agreement, a 700 page encyclopaedic reference text for researchers who wish to compete in calls.

“Have we simplified things? I’m not so sure. I have seen plenty of people lost in detail,” he said.

The rules that come along with a grant still befuddle accountancy departments, three years into the programme. Companies participating in the joint technology initiatives (JTIs), for example, have to keep three sets of accounts: one for EU officials, another for member states, and a third set in which they are required to record their in-kind contributions.

“Separating your direct and indirect costs – you need to turn your accounting upside down just to play in Horizon 2020,” De Ruytter said.

But despite the odd headache, De Ruytter argued that JTIs are a successful feature of the research programme, even going so far as to call them reason alone for Honeywell to keep investing in Europe.

Others agreed that Horizon 2020’s audit culture could be overbearing. “There’s a danger our controls are very discouraging,” said Alex Brenninkmeijer, member of the European Court of Auditors, the EU’s accounting watchdog and the body that will ultimately judge the cost-effectiveness of Horizon 2020.

All of the requirements place a particular strain on small and medium-sized businesses, and increase the likelihood of mistakes. “There’s many a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the rules. And often it is too late, an SME has gone bankrupt,” Brenninkmeijer said.

On the side of the EU, the Horizon 2020 reimbursement system can also be prone to error. However, but because of the small number of audits so far, the observation has limited statistical value. “So we can’t congratulate [EU Research Commissioner] Mr Moedas but we cannot be angry with him either,” Brenninkmeijer said.

Responding to the comments, Commission officials defended Horizon 2020 against charges that it is not a straightforward programme, but conceded that reimbursing researcher costs could be improved.

“We’re piloting a system in the last 2018-2020 work programme where we’ll trial a lump sum payment based on research outputs,” said Patrick Child, deputy director of the Commission’s research directorate. “It would go a long to simplifying our rather complicated system.”

The task has added urgency now, with the Commission preparing to release a proposal for Horizon 2020’s successor around this time next year.

For lobbyists hoping their arguments can stand out from the cacophony of efforts to influence the direction of the new programme, the schedule is similarly tight.

An extra leg-up

Eleonora Nikolova Tankova, dean of international economics and administration at Varna Free University in Bulgaria, drew attention to the massive concentration of research funding. “You can see that 85 per cent of it has gone to six countries,” she said. Central and Eastern European countries receive just over 4 per cent of total funding.

Her own institute is still waiting for its break. “We have made 20 proposals, none have been approved,” she said.

Bulgaria has received one of the lowest shares of Horizon 2020 money – €42 million – and many of its researchers are dismayed at the bullish competition for money, which sees only one third of all high quality proposals accepted.

“For sure it reduces our motivation,” said Tankova. It is not a fair fight, she added, saying, “We compete with countries that can pay six to 10 times the salaries we can.”

Her suggested fix is to award higher evaluation scores to projects that include what she called “under-represented countries”.

Horizon 2020 does include mechanisms, such as ‘twinning’ poorer institutions with better-equipped research institutes in the older member states, that seek to increase the participation of newer member states such as Bulgaria.

Initiatives like these, while widely praised, should switch focus slightly, said Emily Palmer, head of office at EuroTech Universities Alliance.

“It should be about sharing best practice in structural reforms. Like how to build the best tech transfer programmes, or how to make the best tenure track programmes. Our universities would be very keen to help with this,” she said.

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020