28 Apr 2010   |   News

Scientists to ‘spend more time in the lab, less in the office’

Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn announces plans to simplify research funding – without compromising financial control.

Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn: simple is better.

European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn today delivered on her promise to simplify research funding rules, setting out a two-step approach, in which changes will be made under the existing legal and regulatory framework, and then the financial rules themselves will be changed to allow more radical simplification.

The Commissioner said she recognises the existing complexity and bureaucracy dissuades many researchers from applying for EU research funding, and read out a petition signed by almost 11,000 researchers calling on European ministers and parliamentarians to simplify things.

Mid-term assessment

Complementing the proposals on simplification, the Commission has also appointed a group of 10 independent experts to carry out a mid-term assessment of Framework Programme 7. The group is chaired by Rolf Annerberg, director general of the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning. The rapporteur is Iain Begg from the London School of Economics.

The group’s report on the design, implementation and impact of FP7, including to what extent simplification measures in the programme have been effective, will be presented in the autumn this year.

The researchers’ declaration states, “The funding of European research should be based on trust and responsible partnering. Today researchers in Europe face a lot of red tape and cumbersome financial regulations. We are not against rules. But we need to simplify.”

“I agree with every single word,” Geoghegan-Quinn said.

The rules of Framework Programme 7

The communication focuses on research funding under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), but says some of the suggestions could be extended to other European research and innovation funding programmes, such as the Competitiveness and Innovation Programmes (CIP) and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

The Commission divides its simplification strategy into three parts. The first deals with changes possible under the existing rules, some of which are already under way. They include better IT systems to help reduce the average time-to-grant and time-to pay by several months; the consistent application of rules and procedures (particularly for auditing) across Commission services; and improving the structure and timing of calls for proposals.

As Geoghegan-Quinn, who spent the last decade working at the European Court of Auditors, put it, “The framework programme is not a programme for accountants and bureaucrats. It is a programme for scientists and innovators.”

The second strand – changing the existing financial rules – would require a decision by the European Parliament and the Council. Here the Commission wants to use the same accounting methods for EU funding as are applied to national research funding, and to widen the use of “average cost methodologies” that avoid the need for projects to account “separately and painstakingly” for each small item of expenditure.

The third and final part of the strategy relates to future Framework Programmes. FP8 – which if Geoghegan-Quinn gets her way will have a new and more user-friendly name –starts on 1 January 2014, meaning the Commission needs to present its proposal late 2011, or early 2012.

This third strand will focus in particular on cost reporting and financial auditing. The Commission is suggesting three options for moving away from a cost-based system focused on inputs, to one based on prior definition and acceptance of output/results.

The options are:

  • project-specific lump sums as a contribution to project costs estimated during grant evaluation/negotiation and paid against agreed output/results;

  • the publication of calls with pre-defined lump sums per project in a given subject area and selection of the proposals promising the highest scientific output for the specified lump sum;

  • a high-trust “award” approach consisting of distributing pre-defined lump sums per project without further control by the Commission.

Most of the changes proposed in today’s Communication will be possible only under a new and simplified Financial Regulation, which deals with all funding programmes and not just research. This regulation, the responsibility of Financial Programming and Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski, is due to be revised in May 2010. Geoghegan-Quinn said she has “the full cooperation” of Lewandowski on this matter.

Risk of errors

One important area, for which there is no concrete proposal in today’s communication, is a research-specific “tolerable risk of error”. This can only be achieved under the revised Financial Regulation and so will be put forward alongside the proposal for that regulation in May, the Commission said.

Christopher Hull, secretary-general of the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), welcomed a number of the proposals in today’s communication, particularly the idea of a uniform interpretation of the rules across Commission services, and the recognition of beneficiaries’ usual accounting practices.

However, he said some of the problems can only be solved with technical improvements. “What is also needed is an agreement between Commission, Parliament and Council on a more realistic level of tolerable risk in relation to research. That, together with real-time auditing, to reduce the number of ex-post audits, would go a long way to ensuring the efficient and effective implementation of FP7,” Hull said.

The communication is now open for discussion by the other EU institutions, in particular the European Parliament and Council. The Commission will then specify details on the way forward in a European Research and Innovation Plan in the autumn, with the necessary legislative steps and rule changes to follow.

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