21 February 2011 by Pelle Neroth
Framework Programme 8, or FP8, kicks off in 2014, and we are only little more than halfway through FP7, the current science spending programme, but already people are looking ahead to design the new one and saying, please, can this one be less bureaucratic.
We are talking quite large sums of money: the UK gets 500 million euros a year from FP7, a slightly greater proportion, 14%, than its share of the population of the European Union. Nevertheless, the UK tends to be involved in niche sectors, like space or SMEs, but is almost completely absent from some large well funded sectors like automotive and ICT.
Why is this? Judging by the excellence of UK science, it should be getting more than just over its population share. How can the UK maximise its income? A recent Academy report on FP8, after consulting views of British engineers, scientists and businessmen, found that that the application process was too cumbersome. They are calling for a two stage process, where a short two page application is sent off first, with only those with a realistic chance of succeeding invited back to submit a longer proposal. The commission should reply more quickly.
Stakeholders interviewed by the RAE also complained about the fact that a detailed schedule for the project was called for at the beginning, when the proposal was made. Business felt it was impossible to forecast workloads and staffing levels over such long timespans. It wants more flexibility, and would prefer rewards based on achieving a few simple targets, and less auditing and control, more trust. The message to the commission: Leave us alone and judge us by results.
Participants wanted better information on what FP8 is about - European science ambassadors, in the form of representatives from business and the universities that have successfully applied for funding in the past. More national contact points. And also called for was less bit-funding of projects,, more grand themes, grand efforts in areas where Europe had a realistic chance of making a difference in the next two decades.
It is depressing to read that bureaucracy is still a problem in FP7. If you go back 30 years and look through the science magazines, at reporting of the early FPs, like FP1, or FP4, the complaints about the bureaucracy have been pretty much constant. The money is on the prediction it won't be put right next time either. But what is this about grand themes? The other bugbear of Europe science funding projects has been that it's too focused on big industrial projects, and that it completely missed the biotech, nanotechnology and genomics revolutions. One caustic remark a few years ago in the world's top journal Science went like this:
"Academic scientists must apply to the commission to recover support that was assigned from national budgets. But a funny thing happened on the way to Brussels.
" Money taken away from national budgets reappeared earmarked for the 'train of the future', the 'car of the future', the 'toilet seat of the future'. Not surprisingly, enterprise groups that produced trains, cars and toilet seats got the lion's share of these funds - the net effect was that money cut out from national research programmes reemerged as industrial subsidy."
From the science perspective, the EU became much more big business-focused after the arrival of the Francophone Belgian commissioner for science Etienne Davignon back in the early 1980s. There was talk of a "European technological space", with large subsidy programmes that excluded competitors.
The system produced HDTV, Europe's grand attempt to seize the lead in broadcast technology. It was far more than a product; it was also a broadcasting system and a distribution network. Jacques Delors, the then president of the commission, hated by the British, likened HDTV to something that transcended economics. It was a grand project, not only in the name of economics but a cultural defence against American influence.
Philips and Thorn EMI led the project and the commission wrote directives that would force competitors to use the two European companies' proprietary technology. EU TV 95 was called the biggest public works project in Europe since the Channel Tunnel - the only problem being that the-so called D2 Mac analogue HDTV standard was made obsolete before it came to market by digital standards developed in America.
The commission was heavily criticised. The Financial Times wrote that the technology was dictated mostly by the defensive self interests of European manufacturers. And that the commission had completely failed to communicate with viewers, broadcasters and consumer organisations. "The result was a little like the ill-fated Delorean car."
The next science commissioner, Philippe Busquin, refocused EU science spending on science rather than industry: on researcher mobility, rather than big industrial projects that could go desperately wrong. His successor launched the much praised European Research council grants, aimed at funding the brightest blue sky pure science proposals from around Europe. So surely the British stakeholders don't expect the EU to return to the error prone approach of big ticket applied research, putting all one's eggs in one basket?
Not inconsiderable sums of money are at stake in European science. There probably needs to be much more discussion about how the money is spent. Debate on European issues in the UK is not very developed, and EU science funding is even more arcane than that.
Even specialist magazines like Nature only deal with it sporadically. If the next FP after all these years is still set to be too bureaucratic and awareness of past mistakes is still not sufficiently aired, let's do something about it.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 21 February 2011 01:33 AM Legislation
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