Brussels – On a popular Linked-In discussion group, someone recently asked how to get hold of the detailed planning documents for Horizon 2020, the European Union’s new, €70 billion research programme. The answer from one colleague? “Just ask the Internet.”
Indeed, when it comes to getting EU money, the Internet is a bigger help than you might expect. Through some carefully constructed Google searches, our news editor, Joanne O’Dea, was able to find almost all of the key Horizon 2020 documents, the so-called work programmes, scattered across university and member-state Websites around the EU – in fact, seemingly everywhere except the European Commission’s own Website.
So what, you wonder? Well, these are the documents you need if you want EU research money next year. They tell you what the Commission is planning in detail for each major area of research and innovation – from genomics to cyber-security. They provide hints on how to construct a successful grant application. Eventually, they will be published for all to see at ec.europa.eu; but the Commission hasn’t gotten around to that, yet. Instead, Commission officials have been passing draft copies of these documents to member-state officials and outside experts, most often as required under the EU’s complex governance system, but not always. Either way, the result is that hundreds of e-copies of these documents have been circulating through official and unofficial inboxes – and some of them end up getting posted on university servers or social media groups.
This, we believe, is no way to distribute vital grant information. It should be coming directly and publicly from the Commission, not from a haphazard collection of individuals. Every researcher and entrepreneur in Europe should have equal access to this information.
What’s the problem? you may ask. After all, EU Framework Programmes have always operated on these kinds of networks of outside experts, national contact points, programme committee members, lobbyists and others – some with official status to have the information, and some not. Besides, these documents are not the final word: They are drafts that won’t become official until after the basic Horizon 2020 laws are enacted in the next month or so. And Commission officials need this kind of consultation network to make the plans practical. Hey, it’s hard to spend €70 billion all on your own. You should try it some time.
But in the long run, we think, this is harmful. A grant applicant with these early, draft insights gets a competitive edge: More time to plan. The fact that some get that head-start and some don’t is harmful. The number one challenge Horizon 2020 will face is broadening its applicant pool to all kinds of new organisations and people – entrepreneurs, engineers, start-up companies, inventors from Cyprus or physicists from Latvia. Selective distribution of this information can create a false impression that, to win a grant in Brussels, you need a friend on the inside – and if you don’t have it, don’t bother to apply.
Of course, we don’t believe that to be true. And we don’t believe there is any deliberate favouritism going on in this irregular distribution of documents; stuff happens in as complex a system as EU R&D funding. Still, it doesn’t seem like an orderly way for any government to do business.
Now, to be clear, we are not suggesting the Commission hold back all documents until they are official and final; that’s also damaging, and in the rush to get Horizon 2020 going on January 1 would simply mean the first wave of grants applications are lousy. It takes time to plan a good project, and a few extra months of thinking and talking about it with colleagues can make all the difference.
Instead, the simplest approach would be for the Commission to post everything, on its own Website, as soon as drafts start circulating. Label them drafts, subject to revision or delay depending on the state of the legislation; caveat lector. Invite people who download the documents to leave an email address, so the final versions can be sent automatically. And do continue to let anybody who wants post extra copies on their sites; just make sure the Commission’s own site isn’t “scooped.”
What we’re urging is a soft launch of Horizon 2020 now, open freely and equally to all. We are gratified that, following our inquiries this week, the Commission says it is going to hustle up its planned release date. But we hope this leads to something more permanent: some bureaucratic innovation in how to manage information for a public grant programme.