Saturday, 10 October 2015

Engaging with Europe

In April I wrote about the European Research Area, the ‘borderless continent’ that the founding fathers of the European Union hoped to achieve. The ERA can best be seen as a work in progress, but that shouldn’t stop academics from engaging with it and trying to influence its future direction and focus.

To many, the European Commission can seem like an impenetrable technocracy. If you ever hear a commissioner speak, it will do little to dispel this notion. I wrote once about the basic components of a Commission presentation. The vital elements are PowerPoint slides dense with text, detailed maps of the process by which directives have been agreed, preferably involving an incomprehensible flowchart, lots of clip art, and a peppering of unexplained acronyms.

Don’t let that put you off. The Commission—and the €80 billion (£58bn) in research and innovation funding that is up for grabs as part of Horizon 2020—is yours. It belongs to the people of Europe and, whatever the UK Independence Party might want you to believe, it is there to serve and respond to you.

But how can individual academics, who might feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the Brussels machine, engage with and influence Horizon 2020? Essentially there are three routes, and they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the more you get involved, the more you will cross the boundaries between the three.

The first is as a proposer or investigator. This is the way that most UK academics engage with Horizon 2020. The next work programmes, which will explain what research the Commission would like to fund in the next two years, will be published this autumn, but there are already drafts available. If you’re unsure whether your research will fit in, go along to networking events and information days: check the Cordis website for events in your area.

If you don’t have a ready-made consortium, you can attend networking events or even use the UK Research Office (your national contact point) or Cordis to set you up on a 'blind date'. However, partner searches should be used with caution. You’ll be linked to the partners you find for the next five years or thereabouts, so you need to be certain that their research is good, that you can trust them to deliver and that you can communicate openly and honestly with them.

The second route is as an evaluator. If you don’t feel willing or able to commit to a research project, you can always use your knowledge and research expertise to advise the Commission on the proposals it receives. It maintains a database of independent experts who evaluate proposals, review projects and monitor programmes and policies. In order to join these hallowed ranks, you will need a high level of expertise in research or innovation, have at least an undergraduate degree and be available for occasional short-term assignments.

The final route is more nebulous, but potentially more fruitful for influencing the direction of science policy in the long term. It involves engaging with the various bodies and mechanisms that help the Commission to keep track of people's thoughts and views.

These are varied. At one end of the spectrum you have the open consultations (including ‘scoping papers’) on work programmes, to which anyone can submit their views. An example of this was the Future and Emerging Technologies Proactive Consultation, which closed last year. People could contribute their views as comments on the website. At the other end of the spectrum are broad platforms and partnerships such as the European Technology Platforms (ETPs), Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs) and European Innovation Partnerships (EIPs).

I can see your eyes glazing over as you enter the forest of three-letter acronyms, but don’t be put off. Essentially, all of these act to present the views of a range of people working in specific areas: the ETPs develop roadmaps and agendas, the JPIs allow member states to commit to particular topics, and the EIPs provide a focal point within specific challenges.

More immediately, academics can join expert advisory groups. These cover a range of areas that map on to societal challenges such as health, food security and transport. They can be formal or informal, and deal with the preparation and implementation of legislative proposals and policy initiatives.

It would be too easy to look at all of this and choose to turn away—to decide that it’s all too much, too complex. But I would encourage you to stick with it. The less you get engaged, the less likely it is that your discipline will be represented in future calls, and the more European funding will become the plaything of the favoured few. It’s time to reclaim it for the majority.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in May 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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