Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Learning to Love Poor Success Rates, and the Future of European Funding

EARMA: awash with conference coffee
Conferences are strange beasts. They're slightly unreal. It might be all that conference coffee, and having large, formal meals at times when you're not used to having large, formal meals. It might be all the fractured conversations you have, or the sense of bewilderment as you try and find the Wellington Suite for the fourth parallel session of the day.

At the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators (EARMA) conference in Lulea this week the unreality was compounded by the fact that the sun never really sank below the horizon. And, whilst most of the speakers (myself included) stuck squarely to the script, some seemed to have been affected by the parallel reality of sub-Arctic Sweden.

Peter Fisch is a former Head of Unit in the European Commission, and is known for putting forward slightly provocative pieces about the way the Framework Programme, currently Horizon 2020, works. At EARMA he challenged us to not only see poor success rates as A Good Thing, but also to question the way that the EU handled its research budget, and whether innovation, a key element of H2020, should be there at all.

You could almost hear a collective intake of breath when he suggested that the current H2020 success rate of 14% (down from 20% in FP7) should not only be accepted, but positively welcomed. 'The ultimate objective of the Framework Programme is not to make applicants happy,' he suggested. 'It is not to keep them in their comfort zones. Rather, it is to have a positive impact on the development of European society and economy.'

For him, a lower success rate is indicative of good competition, and actually demonstrates that H2020 has succeed in one of its primary goals: to simplify the process of applying for European funding.

And, if you stop to think about it, he has a point. It's now much easier for academics to apply to the Commission for funding. The burdensome bureaucracy has been lessened, and the structure of the Programme is now more straightforward. As a result, more people are applying, which has sent success rates falling.

So what can the Commission do about it? Fisch suggest that they could:
  • increase the budget
  • be even more prescriptive about the thematic priorities, or
  • introduce additional bureaucratic hurdles.
None of these are likely. Introducing 'tweaks' such as more two stage applications is merely tinkering at the edges. No, for Fisch, something more wholesale is needed. In its thirty year history, the Framework Programme has not had a complete overhaul. Any changes have been relatively small scale (whatever the Commission would have us believe), and new schemes and ways of working have been added without taking anything away. As a result we have a headless behemoth, with poor governance structures that is not fit for the difficult purpose of patrolling the borderline between the creative chaos of science and the measure bureaucracy of the EU.

Instead, Fisch suggested that the Commission should take the opportunity presented by the forthcoming budgetary negotiations to scrap it all and start again, from the bottom up. The simplification that took place in FP7 and H2020 was good, but didn't go far enough. The process by which Work Programmes (the guiding principles governing the distribution of funding for H2020 pillars) is too opaque. Whilst the funding competitions themselves have been simplified, there is a de facto competition, with no written rules or terms of engagement, to set the thematic priorities for them. 

Fisch would like to see the Framework Programme remodelled on the template of the European Research Council. Do away with any thematic priority or societal challenge, and instead leave it completely open and responsive mode. He suggested that this would be 'simplification 2.0': there would be no opportunity for back room deals, and there would be complete transparency in the way research funding is decided. Whilst success rates may initially dip even lower as a result, they would bounce back, as they have with the ERC. 

He finished by aiming a final salvo at the incorporation of innovation into the Framework Programme. The timeframe for developing innovation from research is so long that it doesn't make sense to couple them together in an artificial way, he suggested. There is no reason that innovation funding could not be dealt with by some other Directorate General within the Commission. If it did so, it would be assessed and funding distributed in a very different way, and that would not be a bad thing. Tying innovation to research has meant that, if additional funding is needed for innovation (such as for the mooted European Innovation Council), it will be the research budget that takes a hit, and that will have an adverse effect on basic research. 

Whilst conference coffee deadens the senses, such broadsides as these wake up the delegates and get them thinking afresh. You might not agree with everything he says, but its wonderful to be encouraged to think:. It doesn't have to be this way.

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