Thursday, 6 October 2011

How to Fail at FP7

The workshop title was like a thrown gauntlet: 'How to Fail at FP7.' Anyone can succeed at FP7, said the workshop leader, Melvyn Askew; it takes real determination to fail. He was being facetious, but there was an undercurrent of truth. After all, the EC tells you exactly what it wants, and how: it published voluminous guidance which, if followed, should lead to success. It's when you disregard this that you come unstuck, when you assume your project can be shoehorned in to the call, or that all costs are eligible, or that you can invite all your chums along to do separate projects under a vague umbrella.

So if it's that easy, why do so many people fail? Askew suggested it was down to time. You need time to not only draft the application but, way before you set pen to paper, time to lay the foundations. So here's a quick run down of what you should be doing, now, to prepare.

  • Think. Askew singled out one of the hapless workshop participants and asked, 'what's your strategy for getting European funding?' Like an embarrassed schoolboy the participant mumbled and looked at his shoes. As would the rest of us if he'd picked on us. The truth is most universities have a laissez faire attitude to applying. Askew, however, suggested that we should all be thinking strategically: what are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? What are our connections? Where should our focus be? Identify those strengths, those networks, and build on them. Don't leave it to chance, or to those on the peripherary of European research, to play the tune.

  • Talk. Once you've established a European strategy, you need to lay the foundations for your consortium. Who are the best people working in your area? Who should you approach to be part of a consortium? Not everyone need be an equal partner, but equally there should be no 'make weights' or padding. Each partner should have a clear purpose. Once identified you need to sound them out and set ground rules about the collaboration. If you're coordinating, you will be the one held responsible, and you don't want to be left to pick up the bill should a partner renege on a collaboration agreement.
    You also need to talk to the Commission. Get a sense of what's on the horizon. Now is the time to start establishing contacts with Commission officials and project officers. They are there to help. Later, as the bid develops, they can clarify the intentions of the call, so that you don't end up pushing your project down a false trail. Your relationship should continue once your project's off the ground and you need to provide progress reports. Don't be scared of picking up the phone to the commission (or, in fact, to the NCPs) to get an insight into their thinking. Better still, spend the money on a Eurostar ticket to Brussels for an informal talk.

  • Plan. So you've identified your strengths and you have in place your partners. Now is the time to think about the project itself. One person - preferably with English as their native language - needs to pull it together and draft the application.It must appear to be coherent and unified, not like some kind of clippings album, with pieces taken from a selection of different newspapers. Each work package should interlink and interweave with the others; it should be interdependent and integral with the whole. It should be written in plain English, with acronyms spelt out and explained where necessary, and any jargon or slang cut out. Spell out everything, and don't assume anything. Just because you think you've got a global reputation, or your university is the toast of the UK, that doesn't mean that a Latvian evaluator will have heard of you or your institution.

  • Write. As you draft your application, you should keep in mind the assessment criteria that the EC will use. There are three elements, each of which gets a score out of five:
    - Science and Technology
    - Management
    - Impact
    The first of these is usually well met by applicants, albeit with a little too much context. The second is often so-so, and the third is frequently dire. Recent signals from the Commission are that they are tiring of poor impact programmes, so think seriously about how you will disseminate the findings of your research, and how you will engage with stakeholders. As with Research Council applications, it is a good idea to have an 'advisory group' that includes end users who can guide you in your research, and ensure that you are meeting the needs of those who may benefit from the research.
    The evaluation itself is, in the eyes of Askew, fair, balanced and objective. There is no truth in the belief that lobbying has any effect, or that the EC expects consortia to be balanced and equal, with members from north and south Europe, or from new and old member states. The consortium has to 'make sense' (see above), and that's it. In the peer review meeting there is a member of the Commission on hand to ensure fair play, and to object if they sense that the rapporteur is not heeding the views of all panellists, or being too partisan.
    As well as the evaluation criteria, you should bear in mind that, if your application is successful, you will have to go through a gruelling negotiation. At this stage the Commission will meet with you to discuss the nitty gritty of your project. They might present you with questions and queries that were raised by evaluators, such as unnecessary costs, or an unbalanced consortium. They may ask you to strip these out, and this may well affect your overall project. So preempt this by checking both the eligibility and the necessity of all components of your project.

  • Submit. Submit early, and often. Each time you submit via the EPSS system it overwrites what has already been submitted. Don't leave it until the last moment, only to find the software crashes, leaving you out in the cold.
Think. Talk. Plan. Write. Submit. Sounds so easy, doesn't it? Of course it isn't, and you'll face plenty of frustrations, barriers, hurdles and dead ends along the way. But if you give yourself time then you have a much better chance of succeeding - and not failing - at FP7.


  1. Excellent advice for any large collaborative project. I often advise researchers to organize smaller workshops and conferences with potential collaborators in the early stages so that you have all been in a room together actually talking about this big project and what it will achieve.

    Also that management criterion is really important. These are BIG projects. You aren't going to achieve much if you don't have a plan for managing the collaboration. A real plan that includes project managers, advisory committees, reporting lines, etc.

  2. I'm working on a FP7 proposal at the moment (a Marie Curie ITN).

    You write: "Better still, spend the money on a Eurostar ticket to Brussels for an informal talk."

    I asked the UK national contact point whether I should do the above, and the answer was no. I attended a UKRO presentation at my university and asked if I should do the above, and the answer was no.

    If you still believe I should travel to Brussels and talk to certain Commission officials, I would be grateful if you would provide me with names and telephone numbers. The message I am getting from the above enquiries is that the notion that you should go to Brussels to talk to the officials, is an bogus rumour.

  3. One very important aspect that was highlighted above is the collaboration between partners in the consortium.

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