EU research: Why some FP7 projects fall short

California Science Center, Exposition Park, Los Angeles

The European Union has been a massive sponsor of scientific research since 1984. It presently disburses more than 7 billion euro each year for research – and this in addition to individual member states’ science budgets. Multi-annual Framework Programmes for Research (FPs) play a role in these EU efforts to step up innovation and competitiveness by co-funding specific projects rather than the mere operation of universities and labs.

Every few months, the European Commission publishes thematic calls on EU-endorsed research priorities, encouraging universities and industry as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises to form consortia and generate concrete proposals. These are evaluated and decided upon by independent expert juries.

Research efforts throughout the continent have long been virtually unthinkable without this substantial support. However, I funding programmes and application procedures are also very complex and demanding. In this two-part article, I will discuss several related issues.

On 14 October, 2009, the European Court of Auditors published a special report, Networks of Excellence and Integrated Projects in Community research policy: did they achieve their objectives?.
The experts examined a number of actions under the European Union’s 6th Framework Programme for Research (FP6), which ran from 2002 to 2006, and identified some cause for criticism.

In particular, the auditors noted:

  • The concerted research efforts did only rarely achieve genuine integration of the work of the individual partners;
  • Contrary to the EU’s expressly stated aim, most subsidies did not incubate self-sustainable projects, but stopped when the EU funding period ended;
  • Third-party financing aside from EU support was few and far between;
  • Funds were not linked to realistic and specific enough objectives.

In the meantime, FP7 (2007-2013) has succeeded FP6. The European Commission has already started thinking about FP8, which will take effect from 2014.

The time is therefore right to evaluate the design of the regulatory and political framework for future research under the auspices of the European Union.

To state it up front: The current FP7 is a thriving programme and, like FP6, boasts major achievements. Many are actual research results, while others are less tangible — yet no less important. The research and development efforts sponsored and encouraged by the EU have helped liberate researchers from the confines of their national academic landscapes, have boosted overall qualification and have levelled the scientific playing field throughout the continent. European cohesion — bringing people together and encouraging cultural exchange — has been enhanced.

The programme has substantial breadth and depth of scientific coverage, from the humanities to high-tech.

The European Journalism Centre itself is an active partner in three FP7 projects. Beyond this, the EJC regards itself as a stakeholder in the communication of science and innovation, therefore getting in touch with a wider range of research efforts than the ones it is directly involved in.

Practical experience and observation suggest, however, that the Court of Auditors’ criticism of FP6 holds true for FP7 as well. While it is overall a great programme, vitalising European research, there are aspects to FP7 that render it difficult to participate and to achieve the best results possible.

One issue is what the European Commission calls “critical mass,” which it considers necessary for effective innovation. On one hand, thinking big is most probably the right answer to challenges of globalisation, to large-scale industrial conglomerates in the US and Asia, and to scientific objectives that require huge expensive laboratories similar to CERN (sub-atomic particle physics) or ITER (nuclear fusion power generation).

Therefore, FP7 requires that most projects include multiple partners from multiple countries and that they typically have an absorption capacity (ie, can spend a certain amount of money) starting from somewhere around 2m euro. Three legal entities from three different EU Member States are usually considered the minimum, but having between five and 10 consortium members is said to enhance a proposal’s prospects of being selected. Often, consortia are more extensive than that.

The downside to this requirement? These rules may encourage blowing up projects merely to meet the criteria, adding partners simply in order to have more of them and giving little consideration to whether they will best serve the project’s particular objective.

The sometimes arbitrary nature of this rule can be is exemplified in the “partner markets” organised by the European Commission as well as by the FP7 liaison offices in the member states. It therefore happens that organisations join a consortium not primarily because they share a common vision and focus (which should be the chief motivation).

Rather, some organisations join because FP7 work indirectly furthers their other interests. Yet an increased number of partners and a diversity of agendas mean that coordination becomes more complicated, thus absorbing energy that would better go into research itself. Intellectual property is also frequently an issue, preventing participants from openly sharing their insights and development results with the entire scientific community.

Nota bene: that does not mean that participants contribute low-quality work; close European Commission oversight and possible sanctions aside, it is in each organisation’s genuine best interest to excel in international projects. However, results might become even better if the programme allowed for more flexibility in the number and qualities of partners selected for individual projects and called for more open-source approaches.

Please bear with me as I put this into an admittedly simplistic example: Say you need a custom-made bookshelf. You have already found a supplier of good lumber, as well as a carpenter specialised in shelves. Yet to be allowed to place an order, you are required to involve a third party. Since you do not know any more shelf-builders, you book another professional carpenter, one you expect to be capable of building bookcases by virtue of his profession — but who normally focuses on cupboards.

You are likely to end up with a very good shelf anyway. However, in the process, you would have to carefully coordinate the two carpenters as they both guard their respective trade secrets (thus effectively limiting the amount they can learn from each other). You’ll have to allow the cupboard specialist extra time to catch up on the latest developments in shelves.

The vertical cooperation between the timber guy and the carpenters, on the other hand, will turn out to be pretty easy; their competences genuinely supplement each other.

Hence, it seems better to determine the number of consortium partners according to the specific objective of the project and its intrinsic research interest — rather than to an across-the-board mandatory threshold.

Why force somebody with a great idea of European scale to cooperate with a minimum number of partners just for the sake of cooperating? Why not let a couple of partners from the same country work together, as long as their research goal has European implications – particularly since many research organisations and companies have foreign staff members anyway?

In the second part of this article, I will look at issues related to orientation and funding.

This article was originally published by the European Journalism Centre (EJC).

Thanks Flickr user kangster for the photography.