How to build research infrastructures with regional funds

15 May 2018 | News

The largest piece of EU science infrastructure in Eastern Europe is also the first to be built – at a cost of €300M - with structural funds. Money was not an issue, but rules for constructing roads and railways don’t work for research facilities

Nicolae Zamfir, director of ELI-NP gives a presentation at the facility in Măgurele. (Photo: ELI-NP)

It’s a thing you seldom hear, but for Nicolae Zamfir, director of Extreme Light Infrastructure - Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP), a laser research facility with the most intense beamline in the world, money, “Is the only thing we cannot complain about, it works perfectly.”

The facility in Bucharest cost more than €300 million and most of the money came from EU structural funds, with only a small portion being covered by the Romanian government. The facility has been built, most of the technical equipment is in place, and engineers and researchers are already testing the laser.

When it is open for researchers from across the world by the end of 2019 the laser is likely to spur discoveries and innovations in nuclear materials and radioactive waste management; industrial tomography and gamma radiography; pharmaceutical radioisotopes; medical imaging; radiation and proton cancer therapy.

“We have €50 million dedicated to developing scientific experiments,” Zamfir told Science|Business. But, public procurement procedures for buying new equipment and hiring engineers and researchers are making things difficult. “We are blocked.”

The facility, just outside Bucharest, in Măgurele, is part of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap. Together with sister facilities in Hungary and the Czech Republic, it is one of the first large research infrastructures in central and eastern Europe.

ELI-NP is also the first time the EU has set up a large research infrastructure using structural funds. But this has been both a blessing and a curse.

Mixing a cocktail of funds

All projects financed from EU’s structural and regional development fund must comply with strict public procurement laws. But rules that are appropriate for building roads and railways are a difficult fit for large research infrastructures. Often, preparing the documentation is more costly than the value of the contract.

For example, there are certain parts of an experimental system that cannot be bought off-the-shelf but have to be custom built. “For some parts, there is no company that can deliver them,” says Zamfir.

ELI-NP was in contact with research groups at the universities of York, Warsaw and Cologne which were interested in building custom parts for experimental equipment, but they gave up because public procurement rules made writing the application more expensive than the value of the contract. “They told us they won’t put together an application for a €60,000 contract,” Zamfir says.

Zamfir believes that certain equipment needed for research infrastructures should not fall under the same public procurement requirements as other projects funded through structural funds. “In research you cannot apply the rules used for building highways,” he says.

The rules make hiring research staff difficult also. Research infrastructures have to advertise job openings in ‘national circulation’ newspapers for at least 30 days before the position can be filled. To comply with this rule, ELI-NP has job advertisements all year round in Romania’s top newspapers.

Zamfir says this is just to check another box in the legal requirements. In reality, “no one who reads these newspapers will want to work here,” he says. ELI-NP needs about 300 researchers and engineers but has taken on only 150 so far.  “We are still looking for advanced laser engineers,” says Zamfir.

Job ads posted in international physics and engineering magazines have to abide by equally ridiculous rules. To pay for a job ad in the CERN Courier, ELI-NP has to invite the magazine to participate in a public tender. “They’ll ask, you want to advertise in our magazine but we need to come to your public tender,” says Zamfir.

Structural funds need to abide by public procurement rules, but the law is made for building highways, not research infrastructures. “There are no rules for buying things that do not exist,” says Zamfir.

The building may be a fit, but the experimental equipment inside it should have different rules. “I agree that the law should prevent dishonest people from accessing funds, but honest people are blocked,” says Zamfir.

As a trailblazer for setting up a leading research facility with structural funds, Zamfir feels optimistic there is room for the EU and member states to agree on a way to seamlessly combine funding instruments that already exist but are not yet connected. “I think that in the future there should be a cocktail of funding,” he says.

It took two years for Zamfir and his team to prepare the application for funding and to submit it in 2011. The paperwork was split in three different components: construction, research, and training.  A single application covering all components would have made things much easier, he suggests.

Training more laser experts

The high-power laser field is growing fast and there are not enough experts on the job market. ELI-NP and its sister facilities in Hungary and the Czech Republic compete for a limited number of recruits, who still need to be trained further, and beyond activities that can be funded through Marie Curie programmes.

“In our case it is important to increase the level of scientific community,” says Zamfir. The three facilities making up ELI have a big chance to become a success story, but the EU still needs to make some effort to put all the different funding components together, to benefit education, science and the consolidation of high tech industry in the region. “We should spend a small amount of time to have the whole picture,” he says.

Plugging the brain drain

ELI is a concrete sign of progress in developing the science base in eastern Europe. A young researcher looking for a job can no longer say that she needs to work in Geneva in order to win a Nobel prize. “Maybe she could win working from Romania too,” says Zamfir.

Of its 150 employees, 50 are Romanians who chose to return from western universities and research institutes. Zamfir hopes that ELI-NP is only the first example of success in advanced research. “One swallow doesn't make a summer,” he says. 

Bridging the east-west gap

The locations of the three ELI projects are not serendipitous. Richer countries submitted bids for the three research infrastructures, but the need to balance research capabilities across the continent and to stop the brain drain made the European Commission consider Eastern Europe. “Politics won,” says Zamfir.

Newer member states have to invest and reorganise their research systems if they want to catch up with western counterparts. Researchers usually move on to greener pastures not because of money, but because of lack of prospects and stability. Countries in the region are only now learning how to attract research money efficiently, through competitive calls and peer review.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to have a more equal distribution of science across the continent.,” says Zamfir. Imbalances in research and innovation output could have negative effects for the entire continent. With ELI, the seed is there and the potential exists to generate positive spillover effects on the distribution of knowledge in the EU.

Envy has no place in science, Zamfir says. “The only difference is that a researcher in Paris won’t be travelling only to Grenoble, but also to Bucharest.”

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