EU streamlines the management approach for Horizon 2020

22 Jan 2014 | News

The Commission has started re-organising its main department for research and innovation. The objective, Director-General Robert-Jan Smits tells Science|Business, is better policy and more efficient grant handling

BRUSSELS – As the Horizon 2020 research programme gets underway, the European Commission is starting to reorganise its core research and innovation department to boost its efficiency at managing grants and make more time for policy planning, according to Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for Research and Innovation.

Horizon 2020, with a budget of almost €80 billion over seven years, is the biggest-ever research programme in Europe – but although in December 2013 the EU member-states approved the 30 per cent budget increase over the current Framework Programme 7, they also ordered the Commission to cut staff by 5 per cent overall. As a result, “I had to look for new ways to manage the programmes, in a less-costly and more efficient way,” Smits said in an interview with Science|Business.

His solution was to introduce radical simplification, moving to a trust-based approach in the management of projects, thereby avoiding micro-management of the Commission, and to separate the machinery of grant management from the policy making activities. The Directorate-General currently has a staff of about 1,800 that handles both tasks. This core staff will shrink substantially - by one third by 2020. Those remaining will focus on policy.  Of staff leaving the DG, about 300 will retire naturally. Many will seek new opportunities in the executive agencies, where they will focus on administering the grant programmes. The remaining shrinkage of the DG will come from normal mobility – people leaving the DG for other jobs, or leaving the Commission entirely, to work elsewhere.

The changes have been rumoured for the past year in Brussels – but Smits’ comments, as they start taking effect, are the first public description of them. Though partly prompted by budget and staffing constraints, they are intended to produce better policy and faster grant approvals. 

A policy focus – and a new Communication

In the past, Smits said, “Our core business was spending the money. We had little time for policy-related issues, such as the Innovation Union and the European Research Area, things essential for science in Europe. So we said we have to separate policy from the administration; like in all [member-state] countries [where] there are ministries that manage the policy and agencies that manage the money. That’s behind the restructuring we are doing.”

Of the eleven directorates within DG Research and Innovation, three are being reinforced: Directorate A - for Policy Development and Coordination; Directorate B - for Innovation Union and the European Research Area; and Directorate C for International Cooperation. In addition, the policy units in the Directorates dealing with the Grand Societal Challenges are strengthened since they define the multi-annual work programmes and content of the calls.

Over time, the people throughout the DG will shift more towards policy tasks, which will mean fewer financial or project officers. “The idea is that we are going to focus inside the DG much more on policy issues like the Innovation Union, with its initiatives to create a unitary patent, speed up standardisation and develop innovative public procurement; and on the completion of the European Research Area, which includes measures to abolish barriers to the mobility of researchers, a full roll out of open access to publications and open recruitment in universities,” Smits said.

A reflection of the policy emphasis is an upcoming Commission Communication on innovation policy now being put together by Smits’ boss, EU Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, and Commission Vice President Olli Rehn. Smits called it one of the most significant policy initiatives in this area that will come during 2014. It is, “A policy paper on innovation as a source for new growth for the European economy,” he said. It “will have messages on the need to invest, reform and embed,” innovation in the European economy.  It will be a full recognition of the role and place of innovation in the economic policy of the EU.

Cranking out the grants

For grant management, Smits said a recent study by the EU Court of Auditors found that when it comes to programme management, the executive agencies do a first class job. “If you look at time to grant; if you look at replies to questions; making payments quicker – the agencies do it in a quicker and a more efficient manner. That’s why more and more Commission programmes have been externalised to the executive agencies.”

Indeed, as part of its new seven-year budget deal with the member states, the Commission is pushing many routine administrative functions to agencies. These are separate legal entities from formal EU institutions like the Commission, and are set up specifically to administer various EU programmes.

Four will be dealing with Horizon 2020 grants. The biggest is the Research Executive Agency (REA), which will handle the lion’s share of the business. The European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA) administers grants for frontier scientific research.  The Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA), the successor of the Trans-European Transport Network Executive Agency (TENTEA), will handle transport, energy and broadband network grants. And the Executive Agency for Small & Medium Sized Enterprises (EASME), the successor of the Executive Agency for Competitiveness and Innovation (EACI), will handle grants for new funding programmes for small and medium enterprises, and will support programmes for sustainability, climate change and environmental protection.

In part, the agencies’ efficiency comes from the fact that their employees are fully committed to one task: the financial management of programmes and projects. Furthermore, the fact that they are mainly staffed by contract staff, allows for lower costs in administration. Smits said, however, that a limited number of Commission staff will, in future, also work in the agencies, but transfers of Commission staff to the agencies will be voluntary and no one will lose civil servant status or benefits when they move. The transition will take several years, he said – in part because the DG still has to finish dealing with grants under  Framework Programme 7. The last of those projects will be finished in 2018.  It will also take time said Smits, for the executive agencies to staff-up for the extra workload.

For grant recipients, “It doesn’t really matter who makes the payment, as long as they’re qualified people,” Smits said. The agencies will also be handling programmes from other parts of the Commission, including DG Move (for transport) and Enterprise (for small companies.) To ensure a coherent interpretation of rules and procedures across Horizon 2020, a Common Support Centre (CSC) has been set up between the different Commission DGs that have a stake in the new programme. This CSC will be located within DG Research and Innovation.

Staying the course

As for Smits himself, he said he will stay as Director-General until at least the departure of Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn.  "She is great to work with and has done a first class job in putting science and innovation high on Europe's political agenda.” Furthermore, as Smits put it, “I’m an old-fashioned guy. I will stay with my woman until the end.”

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