International Horizon projects criticised for ‘convoluted bureaucracy’

04 Oct 2018 | News

Greater cooperation is needed to address global challenges, but EU bureaucracy and complex rules are undermining scientific partnerships. So will Horizon Europe be more – or less – open to the world?

James Meegan, science fellow at the US Mission to the European Union and director of global research at the NIH, speaking at the Open! conference

The EU made significant efforts to cut red tape in Horizon 2020, compared to its predecessor, the Framework Programme 7 (FP7). But despite these efforts, bureaucracy remains as a barrier to participation, according to James Meegan, science fellow at the US Mission to the European Union and director of global research at the US National Institutes of Health. “We have seen a drop in some areas in US and international collaboration under Horizon 2020, when compared to the last few years of FP7,” he told delegates at the Science|Business Open! conference.

US-EU science collaborations dropped partly due to convoluted bureaucracy and the imposition of excessively restrictive terms, Meegan believes. “This is a major concern of US scientists who partner with EU scientists, but receive no funds from the EU.”

Some US universities have previously told Science|Business of frustrations with EU research funding bureaucracy. According to Richard Lester, associate provost for international relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “The reasons are several. They are fine-grained, nitty-gritty research management sorts of things.” The Horizon 2020 agreement can prevent researchers from granting an exclusive license for their work to a non-European company. That requirement limits MIT’s rights to explore various avenues for commercialisation of innovations.

Others said withdrawal of EU funding, rather than bureaucracy, is the main reason for the drop in collaboration with the US and other countries.

Kostas Glinos, head of unit for international cooperation strategy at the European Commission, claimed that, “Bureaucracy, if anything, has become easier.” Rather, there are fewer participants in signed grant contracts because the EU stopped paying for the administration costs of Mexico and BRIC countries. That was compounded by difficult political circumstances, in the case of Russia.

For some EU decision makers, protecting the public purse means the red tape tangled around research programmes is an inevitable fact of life. Bureaucracy and complex rules are the “eternal difficulties in the funding of research,” said Godelieve Quisthoudt-Rowohl, MEP.

Quisthoudt-Rowohl pointed to the association agreements under which the EU extended participation in its research programmes to EFTA countries, Switzerland and Israel. “We needed a frame for the association [agreements], but we had an increase in bureaucracy to justify the sums spent on it,” she said.

With the European Parliament now in the thick of the debate over the EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe, some MEPs are worried about the cost of international cooperation in science and innovation and want to reduce the openness of Horizon Europe towards third countries.

There are proposals to re-allocate grant money that would have gone to the UK, to other European countries. The goal is that third countries participating in Horizon Europe follow EU’s bureaucratic rules and do not take out more than they put in. “We will vote about all these different views,” said Quisthoudt-Rowohl.

More international cooperation needed

Greater international cooperation in science is needed to address global problems, such as climate change, migration and renewable energy. These challenges require a critical mass of interdisciplinary scientific collaborations that criss-cross the globe. The EU and the US should do more to drive their formation, said Meegan. “We share a keen interest in developing the optimal environment for transatlantic cooperation,” he said.

For Glinos, the EU should invest in research cooperation because its scientists need access to the best talent, resources, and research infrastructures from around the world. In addition, there is a requirement to share the cost and the effort of tackling global challenges. “We cannot do it in Europe alone,” Glinos said.

Research cooperation also promotes economic growth. Estimates show that in the coming years more than 90 per cent of market growth will be outside Europe, and especially in the US and Japan. “We have to access this,” said Glinos.  

The EU and US are no longer dominant in the global economy, as innovation prowess shifts towards China and elsewhere in Asia. “We are being matched and overtaken by others from around the globe,” said Katrina Hayter, deputy director of the research funding agency Innovate UK. “Partners that trade with each other are much more likely to collaborate intensively on innovation,” Hayter said.

Horizon Europe will take an “evolutionary approach” towards international cooperation, said Glinos. The EU will open its association policy to virtually any country in the world that is willing to associate and meets standards in terms of its democracy, market economy, good science capacity and intellectual property protection. “We are determined to stay open,” said Glinos.

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