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Is EU Research Funding Apartheid A Fact?

Five hundred research institutes, both within and outside of the EU scooped 60 per cent of the EU’s €55 billion Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) budget, according to an independent review just carried out by 12 academies. In total, 139,000 proposals were received of which 25,000 or just fewer than 18% were successful.

Only 4% went to the 10 new member states that joined in 2004 (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Malta, Cyprus, Slovenia, Slovakia). Interestingly, those ‘associated countries’ like Switzerland, Norway and Israel received twice as much as the 13 new member states (the above 10 plus Romania, Bulgaria & Croatia).

This news has got some new member state European Commissioners seriously worked up. Their science establishments are just not going to take what is perceived as second class citizenship. Meetings with the European Parliament are planned for early March and Commissioner Moedas and Robert-Jan Smits are perhaps going to have to explain the procedures and facts in a little bit more detail.  

One can look at this two ways: good or bad. The report says that “On the one hand, [concentration] can lead to increased global competitiveness and economies of scale, and foster the emergence of centres of excellence. On the other hand, it can lead to unintended effects, such as the dominance of status over content, risks of elitist compartmentalisation, or barriers against newcomers.”

Individual Universities are, in fact, receiving more EU research funding than entire small member states - or groups of them. 85% of all funding went to research facilities and businesses located in 'western Europe'. Germany came out marginally on top of the UK as Europe's science funding power-house.

Few would argue that bias is not built-in when it comes to scientific research itself, it's kind of normal. But nationalistic bias (perhaps based on the European Commission and its army of evaluators not being the best placed to judge even-handedly what is actually going on in the four corners of the Union) is something that the science system must surely fight against. That is precisely what the European Research Council did. It identified the quality and work of its evaluators as an Achilles Heel and made changes. Impacts have been immediate. The success of the new member states’ candidates has been notable.

Perceptions of excellence and scientific standing really do matter. For example, Manchester University gave us graphene and the EU has piled in over EUR 1 billion into its flagship project, while Chancellor Osbourne has allocated over £80 million into a new graphene institute, the pride and joy of Manchester's European City of Science 2016 array of events this July. This is exciting stuff. But the proof of the pudding will be in the commercialisation of its applications.

It's all well and good that we can point to Manchester and graphene as a European champion - we need them. It's all well and good that Novak Djokovic won 4 grand slams with a graphene racquet. Manchester aims to commercialise graphene bulbs. Photonics experts might say that with LED the world needs graphene lightbulbs just about as much as we need silk toilet-paper! Yes, it can be done, but is it more about the research process itself or the financial outcomes? Meanwhile, the Americans are powering ahead with graphene contact lenses. You know what I'm saying - are these mega investments accounting for 8% of all EU spending giving value to citizens as a return on their investments in science? And if so, why are we 'old' EU members making the hay where the sun doesn't apparently shine in Eastern Europe?  

So, what is the reaction from Brussels and what might change? Firstly, the report was Commissioned and paid for by the European Research Directorate so you can only imagine that some interesting tit-bits might have been left on the editing floor, but the facts must surely be robust. EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas said the focus on excellent research means “It’s normal that the best ones get more.” He pointed out that our Regional & Structural Funds (swallowing up most EU money) are allocated to poorer regions. That is true. His Director-General, Robert Jan Smits has been at the forefront of bridging this disparity and getting the structural programme working more closely with the Horizon 2020 R&D Programme.

But one cannot help but ask is this lip service or real empathy? We hear the same speeches all the time. Plus, who is evaluating the evaluators? The U.S. has robust procedures in place to guard against the 'successful' not literally 'breeding success' for their own circles. The European Union’s science bosses should learn from this.

Some of the communications or Presidency events evaluation panels I have been on over the years were hit and miss. I was surprised at the lack of preparation or real intent to get the right funding to the right people from some fellow evaluators. I was equally surprised at how involved European Commission officials were in the process itself, making it clear what a no to funding a certain project might imply. The benchmark for them is to get the money allocated. Truth be told, asking people to read such complex texts in the thousands of pages, often not in their first language, and to score them very much on a whim of ‘success factors’ was not too rigorous an approach in my mind. The gaps between the promises of a proposal and the reality of what could be delivered were all too often Grand Canyon wide.

The national coordinators from the new member states have long argued that European Research Council grants, for example, are discriminatory insofar as they block recipients from having salary increases. The reality is that recipients are 'mobile' and can take their millions of euros with them. This is good as it increases our scientific ‘brain circulation’.

The fly in the ointment, however, is that they can resign and take this money to another 'western' research institute and receive a pretty enormous pay increase in the ‘job offer’. Meanwhile, their former employer has its hands tied by EU rules. Precisely because of this - and I'm no expert - governments like Hungary are being forced to introduce similar 'national' schemes and awards to try to keep the best of their best at home.

A solution for the second tier EU researchers (now in the Europa League as opposed to the Champions League) proposed by the European Commission is to take those proposals that receive high awards but do not win grants and let them enter a kind of secondary Eurovision Song Contest. The funding source could be the EU's regional programme which does offer money for research and innovation. It’s not clear how this will work in practice.

To his credit, Commissioner Moedas is keen to attract newcomers to apply for Horizon 2020 grants. “We have always to get new people to participate because I want great ideas and great people ... I don’t want people to make it just because they know the system." Moedas thinks his European Innovation Council (EIC) proposal announced last July but heavily criticised by Euroscience as impractical, amongst others, can turn the heads of innovators towards EU funding applications.

Again, this is a debate for another posting with pros and cons. My own personal feeling is - you'll never know unless you try - and he has to do something for his 5 year term. The Commissioner wants to gather together disjointed innovation competitions, such as the SME Instrument and the Fast Track to Innovation, and run them out of the EIC.

The manufacturer’s warning here is that we have all seen reports of the roads and roundabouts to nowhere and empty airports in these regions. Scientific aid for the sake of aid is like the Court of Auditor's findings that one in every two euros spent by us on humanitarian aid either goes astray or has no impact. It strikes me that if there is bias built in based on perceptions of excellence or that some countries just have better drafters in Shakespearian English, then throwing some crumbs the way of the losers via a secondary level of ‘juste retour’ is the wrong way to go about it. This problem isn’t going to go away and there is a lot of science cash at stake!

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