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Science ministers want Brussels to slim down research funding programme

The current system is so complex and fragmented that you need professional consultants to make sense of it, says Estonia’s science minister, Mailis Reps. But agreeing what to junk will be hard

Estonian science minister Mailis Reps
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Europe’s research ministers have asked the European Commission to streamline the research programme, complaining that the large number of funding instruments and legal arrangements have made applying for grants too complicated for applicants.

“We need to rationalise the research funding landscape,” said the Estonian minister for education and research Mailis Reps, after a meeting of ministers in Tallinn on Tuesday. “The current system is so complex and fragmented that it is very difficult to make sense of without professional consultants.”

Her comments follow a recommendation in a recent, influential report authored by former World Trade Organization head Pascal Lamy that a “minimum objective” should be to eliminate one third of funding schemes, instruments and acronyms. The report also suggested adding sunset clauses to certain big initiatives.

The debate to come could have broad implications for the makeup of the next research programme, Framework Programme 9, to be launched in 2021.

Throwing the ball back

Commission officials broadly accept that funding is too complicated, but they are keen to throw the ball back to member states.

“We want ministers to tell us exactly what sub-programmes they want to eliminate,” said an EU official who attended the meeting. “We expect it will be near impossible to get a consensus, however.”

Luc Soete, a professor at Maastricht University, agrees. “The impression I get is that it will be very difficult. Different instruments are popular with different member states,” said Soete.

In a presentation to ministers on Monday, Soete pointed out that there are no less than 17 different health competitions offered under the current Horizon 2020 research programme.  

Analysis first

Any decision to get rid of instruments needs to be based on a comparative analysis, said Jana Kolar, executive director of CERIC-ERIC, an EU-funded research infrastructure for materials science. 

“I can understand frustration with what appears to be sometimes overlapping instruments,” Kolar told ministers. “But before rushing to any decisions, we should have analysis on what the effect of losing different instruments is.”

Estonia, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, does not favour a radical re-write of EU funding.

“There are many great elements in Horizon 2020 that we want to keep,” said deputy secretary-general for research at the Estonian ministry, Indrek Reimand. “We don’t need a revolution, but an evolution for the programme.” Ministers also debated how to build a stronger case for investing more in research and innovation.

EU innovation funding is one area that is soon to evolve. The new European Innovation Council, which is due to launch a  pilot this autumn, will group together four existing instruments: the SME Instrument, Fast Track to Innovation, FET Open and innovation prizes.

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Related subjects: Estonia, FP9, Estonian presidency