The Horizon 2020 report card: good in parts

30 Sep 2015 | News
Research lobbyists gathered in Brussels to tell the European Commission what they like and what is niggling them about the €77B research programme to date

Research lobbyists gathered in Brussels to give the European Commission an appraisal of the €77 billion Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, awarding high marks for a user-friendly website, clearer rules of participation and improved outreach.

“It takes a lot less time for me to explain to researchers how it all works,” said Annika Thies, speaking for an association of 21 research institutes and universities called the European Climate Research Alliance.

But if the Commission gets an A+ for these aspects, there was pretty broad agreement that it should bump off some of the programme’s finicky requirements, which researchers say border on the irksome.

Timesheets, which require researchers to record the amount of time spent on A, B or C activity, being one case in point.

It is impossible for scientists or businesses to give an honest record of how much time they spend on what aspects of research, said Massimo Altarelli, managing director of EIROforum, an association of eight large research organisations including CERN and the European Space Agency. “I might get an idea under the shower or I can sit in my office and nothing comes up,” he said.

According to him, the timesheet method needs to be re-thought. “I don’t think it guarantees transparency. We grudgingly accept – but would gladly dispose – of them.”

Thies agreed the timesheets are fussy saying, “A lot of our members have genome analysis centres or animal housing facilities, and the way to professionally and usefully run these is not to have the person who feeds the animals making records every day which say, ‘Okay, mice 1-5 fed between 9.20 and 9.25’,” she said. “You see the problem. You don’t want to oblige us to record every time we feed a mouse.”

The situation is even worse for researchers participating in the joint technology initiatives (JTIs), said Jan van den Biesen, a vice-president of public R&D programmes at Dutch tech giant Philips. He was speaking for EIRMA, the European Industrial Research Management Association, which represents 92 companies and universities around Europe.

“Simplification has not worked,” for these giant public-private partnerships, van den Biesen said. Participants are still required to keep at least two sets of accounts, one for EU officials, another for member states. Companies keep a third set, in which they are required to record their ‘in-kind contributions’.

All of this places a particular strain on small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), and increases the likelihood of mistakes being made, said Gerhard Huemer, head of research and innovation at the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, an umbrella grouping of SME federations.

“We have seen some troubles with auditing, especially in countries where [the Commission] delegates this role to private contractors,” said Huemer.

He pleaded for all auditing work to be done by Commission employees, who he said would be both more knowledgeable and forgiving than external companies saying, “It’s important that strict rules don’t force an SME that may have made an honest mistake into bankruptcy.”

Another small grumble is reserved for the size of the ‘model grant agreement’, the encyclopaedic reference text for researchers who wish to compete in Horizon 2020 calls. Running at over 600 pages, it is “extremely tedious”, as one lobbyist put it.

It was suggested the Commission could consider using bespoke template texts instead, tailored to different organisation sizes.

In response, Commission officials said they would weigh all suggestions. “Simplification is an ongoing process,” were the comforting words chosen by Robert-Jan Smits, the Commission’s Director General for Research and Innovation and one of the chairs of the stakeholder event. 

Smits also launched an online survey to gather wider comment, open until the end of October.

Greater trust in researchers would be nice, Gill Wells, head of Oxford University’s European team, pointed out. “Major universities have very robust systems in place,” she said. “Anything that can be done to put your trust in [us] would be much appreciated.”

Do something about success rates

Many researchers are dismayed at the bullish competition for money from Horizon 2020. Sixty-five thousand proposals have been submitted already and the odds of winning a grant have slumped to as little as 12 per cent in parts of the programme. 

Juergen Barkhoff, the director of Trinity College Dublin’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute, said researchers’ motivation will suffer if things do not pick up. The programme is, “in real danger of becoming a victim of its own success,” he said.

van den Biesen echoed the sentiment. “Our staff [at Philips] are really upset about the results and I’m not sure they’ll try again,” he said.

More information on past success rates should be prominent for those researchers thinking of applying, suggested Olivier Bouin, an economist and member of the European Alliance for Social Sciences and Humanities. 

Failure rates and unfair access

“Impact” - the label chosen by the Commission to convey the immediate economic benefits of research projects, is a source of apprehension among some scientists. Horizon 2020 grant holders are required to forecast the impact of their research for four years after a project ends.

It is important that projects are allowed to fail, said Amanda Crowfoot, director of Science Europe, which represents national research funding organisations. “We’re concerned about anything that might deter risk-taking,” Crowfoot said.

There was also a complaint about unfair access to detailed planning documents. It is a running sore that some researchers get to see draft work programmes earlier than others.

The most likely reason source of these leaks is that, as required under the EU’s complex governance system, Commission officials must pass draft copies to member-state officials and outside experts.

“Evidently there’s an element of discipline,” replied Wolfgang Burtscher, Deputy Director General for Research and Innovation at the Commission. “They should not make these texts available earlier.”

Restricting open access

Business-minded lobbyists also delivered a blow to what is supposed to be a legacy achievement of the Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas: his open access agenda.  

Moedas has said he wants to push for looser rules governing the publication of research results and underlying data, as well as more idea-sharing between companies and universities. 

However, a representative from giant business lobby BusinessEurope said they want to hang onto an “opt-out from joint ownership schemes” in EU projects.

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