EU research: Dealing with FP7 complexities

In the first part of this series on EU-funded research projects, I discussed issues which can result from requirements placed on project size and required number of cooperation partners.

In this second and concluding part, I will discuss the intricacies of discovering where and how to apply.

The FP7 programme and application process are so immensely complicated and difficult that it basically takes a dedicated FP7 expert to identify the appropriate call and to draft a proposal to match the strict format and eligibility criteria officially prescribed for it.

This breeds FP7 fundraising specialists (in fact, many universities have entire departments to this effect), while other worthwhile projects might never materialize only because they lack the pertinent proposal-making skills. I wonder how many small organisations just give up when they first glance at the official application form; particularly the sought-after Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) will think at least twice before they allocate the requisite manpower to drafting a proposal with uncertain outcome.

Any proposal must pass two thresholds before it eventually receives funding. First, it must be deemed good enough by a board of independent subject-matter experts. This is already difficult, given the level of expectations and what is usually a high number of competing proposals. If the board approves the proposal, it is ranked on a list of all proposals submitted for that call, according to the number of points scored in evaluation. Money will then be spent from the top down, meaning, eg, there is sufficient budget to support the top three or four applications. All others will draw a blank, even if they received a good evaluation.

This is surely a fair selection process in which nobody is lulled into false expectations, and an efficient way to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, it implicitly favours universities and particularly well-off organisations which can afford putting a lot of work into proposals likely to end up without funding in more cases than not. An SME, in contrast, will shy away from tying up its resources in such a way.

Potential applicants unfamiliar with the intricacies of FP7 nomenclature might also be easily confused trying to find the appropriate call. If you are into nuclear energy, it is pretty obvious you should go for Euratom funding, but it is otherwise not at all self-evident whether your proposition will best match calls under “Cooperation”, “Ideas”, “People”, “Capacities”, or any of the plethora of specific (and occasionally puzzling) categories and their numerous sub-categories.

Equally baffling are organisational requirements that entail a variety of rules for eligibility, funding and consortium composition. There are, for instance, “Integrated Projects” (IP) for large-scale coordinated research efforts with few limits to size and duration. Then there are “Specific Targeted Research Projects” (STREP) which are smaller and shorter. Plus there are “Networks of Excellence” (NoE) and “Thematic Networks” (coming, strangely, without an acronym), which don’t actually involve research but rather seek novel applications and dissemination of skills and results, as well as “Coordination and Support Actions” (CSA) supposed to provide services to the people and institutions performing original research.

And then, any of these may, for example, come under a “Policy Support Programme” (PSP), which is part of the overarching “Competitiveness and Innovation Programme” (CIP). Now throw in various Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and the European Institute of Technology and Innovation (EIT) and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KIC), which can also benefit from FP7 funds. To make matters worse, all of the above are usually referred to strictly by their acronyms only, leaving FP7 novices puzzled and desperate. Just try and find the respective explanations on the European Union’s websites.

It is understandable that the strict and formal FP7 guidelines are supposed to render proposals and the resulting projects transparent. To make them easily comparable, to secure they match EU research policy objectives, to prevent misuse. I am even ready to concede the guidelines are perhaps appropriate for the majority of the funded projects. Yet this process confines good ideas to a sometimes convoluted application process and project implementation plan rather than permitting a more open format. And why not take into account that at least sometimes, a lonely scientist in her office may even achieve better results than a busy team?

I can only repeat myself with the appeal to “use the subsidies to stage a sort of innovation beauty contest. Provide short-term seed funding for a multitude of creative projects. Then drop those that did not work out, further support the promising ones, and re-allocate some money to the next round of seemingly crazy ideas. Combine with a requirement that all results be open source and in the public domain, and you will give a major boost to a widespread community of beneficiaries. Solitary nerds, SMEs, and blue-chip companies alike will start coming up with proposals, and join forces ad hoc whenever needed.”

Actually, there already is a programme under FP7 going in this direction, the Future and Emerging Technologies Open Scheme (FET Open), which allows for short and non-conventional proposals at any time. This is a great model that could be expanded to more areas.

Aside from FET Open, the next Framework Programme for Research could develop even greater impact than its predecessors if the overall structure was radically simplified and allowed for more flexible ways of applying. I would recommend getting rid of all the programmes, sub-programmes, and marketing-driven catchy-yet-confusing headlines. Simply list the calls according to the scientific disciplines and non-scientific service categories. Then provide application formats better customised to each area, so applicants don’t need to use the same template irrespective of whether they’re applying for a relatively simple dissemination action or a multi-player biotech research effort.

And implement everywhere a two-step proposal process such as in FET Open, where applicants first submit a short project outline for initial evaluation and thus know at an early stage whether it would be worth the effort to work on a full-scale proposal. In such a way, the potential of SMEs and other smaller organisations could be tapped into much better than now.

Follow-up as per 29 April 2010: The European Commission has launched an initiative to facilitate financing and accounting rules under the next Framework Programme for Research.

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

Thanks Flickr user kangster for the photography.