Scientific council says yes to no-strings-attached funding for experienced researchers. The move is meant to reduce the administrative burden - but universities warn it must not compromise scientific excellence
The European Research Council (ERC) is set to introduce lump sum funding to its Advanced grants for experienced researchers starting in 2024.
The decision was made by the ERC Scientific Council on Friday, with the two provisos that the move must not affect the autonomy of the principal investigator in managing their grants and that there will be not explicit “deliverables” or milestones to be reached that could undermine scientific excellence by preventing researchers from acting upon unexpected findings.
ERC is set to give out almost €16 billion to researchers under Horizon Europe. Like most EU research funding, its grants are given based on the real cost of a project, but the introduction of lump sums will lift the burden of reporting, and will instead mean researchers are paid on the basis of activities carried out.
Laura Keustermans, senior policy officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU), says universities in the LERU network welcome the pilot and are particularly happy the Scientific Council acknowledged the autonomy of principle investigators and unpredictable nature of fundamental research. “We do see advantages of lump sum funding as long as the ERC is not losing what makes it so special,” said Keustermans.
Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association (EUA), is more sceptical about the move. While he says there’s nothing wrong with lump sum funding if it’s done right, the ERC should not rush it. Instead, beneficiaries should be given a choice on how they want to be reimbursed. “The easiest way would be to provide an option for the applicants,” he said.
Lump sum debate
The Commission is pushing to introduce lump sums under Horizon Europe more widely, but has been met with backlash from the research community, with many feeling the plans are premature.
A lump sum pilot was introduced in 2018 and extended in 2020 in response to criticism that the current reporting rules are too complex and lead to high error rates in cost reporting.
Last October, a report on the pilot concluded the lump sum approach “works in practice and is fit for wider use” but many have since criticised the study.
In March, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, former long-term president of the ERC, took a stance against lump sums, saying it would require applicants to provide much more information on how the money is to be spent at the stage when the make their application for funding, while the evaluators will lose the focus on scientific quality if they have to guarantee the financial side of the project is detailed enough in the proposal.
Bourguignon also argued this could undermine scientific freedom. “The change cannot probably be done without imposing that the project be structured along a list of deliverables, something that has been a taboo at the ERC from day one because it rigidifies projects and limits the possibility of an open-ended quest,” Bourguignon told a conference on research evaluation in France this March.
Many universities and research stakeholders had a similar reaction to the introduction of lump sums across other pillars of Horizon Europe.
The EUA argues the beginning of a new framework programme is not a good time to make change. Instead, the Commission should wait for the mid-term review of the programme to make major changes.
“In general, our position on lump sums is that we would be cautious,” Estermann said. “It doesn’t mean that they can’t work in some areas, but what we think in general moving towards lump sums in a big scale shortly after the programme has started, for us, is not necessarily the right way forward.”
Estermann notes the debate on lump sums should not centre around reducing error rates in cost reporting and simplifying the programme but rather listening to the needs of researchers. “The easiest way of achieving that would be giving the option to the applicant what kind of system they would like to have within each call,” said Estermann.
LERU has also been sceptical about lump sums when it comes to big collaborative projects involving many partners. Keustermans said these types of grants hold more room for simplification but applying a blanket approach is risky.
However, when it comes to projects led by one principal investigator, such as the ones funded by the ERC, the goal is simply preserving excellence. Keustermans’ biggest concern is making sure ERC funding remains flexible and respects the unpredictable nature of fundamental research. All this, she notes, is difficult to guage before the approach is piloted. “The introduction of lump sums should not change the very nature of the ERC,” said Keustermans.
Keeping track of the impact
Whether lump sums work will depend on the implementation of the approach, the details of which remain to be seen.
Estermann urges cautiousness, warning “the devil is always in the detail and implementation.”
He adds that a well-designed lump sum system must be transparent, support the principles of financial sustainability, the autonomy of research and not add another administrative burden to the beneficiary in terms of reporting.
Keustermans says it’s important to continue monitoring the situation and to talk to applicants, successful and not, “to try to get an idea on how much additional work there is with the lump sum approach.” The ERC promises the flexibility will remain unchanged.
The ERC notes the decision to adopt lump sum funding is tentative and the final decision is expected “in accordance with the timeline set out for the adoption of the ERC work programme 2024.”