Brussels cash comes at a terrible price

As cash-strapped UK science increasingly looks to Europe for funding, Yorick Wilks warns of a rotten framework of red tape, intellectual corruption and cronyism driven by bureaucrats in pursuit of personal agendas

July 1, 2010

A squeeze on UK research council funds is likely, which is something that is certain to make European Commission funds look more attractive to British academics. The time was, say some Russell Group academics, that they never bothered to apply for Commission grants, pointing to their markedly lower prestige in research assessment exercise ratings and the onerous paperwork involved. But you hear less of that talk these days, especially as the Commission's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7) funds are vast and show no signs of being cut during the ongoing financial crisis.

With the UK government keen to encourage researchers to aim for Commission funding, just as has been the case in European Union countries where national research funds have almost dried up, this may be a good moment to consider some of the problems with the Commission's research bureaucracy, at least for those brought up under the kind of funding regime we still have in Britain. Commission civil servants, the Eurocrats who administer these programmes and the rules they work under, have a number of features that should be more widely understood by prospective applicants.

One must not think of them - as you may think of officials at, say, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council - as neutral civil servants who administer funds awarded on the basis of peer review. They are much more like Medici princes, who flaunt their personal discretion and pursue their own goals and favourites, while normally having no technical expertise to back up their judgements. That is in part because they are in the Franco-Soviet tradition of bureaucrats as power brokers. They stand between the public and what the public wants, and are there to be appeased and flattered, unlike (at least the best parts of) the British and American traditions.

They cannot be sued or constrained by protest: suing Commission officials in a Belgian court, no matter what they had done, would be a waste of time, and they know it. They have the power to target and break individuals. The most striking case in recent years is that of Marta Andreasen, the official who would not sign off the Commission's own accounts. She was vilified by her colleagues and, in 2005, fired. She got her own back in 2009 by being elected as a British MEP for the UK Independence Party, from which position she can help to supervise her detractors, but that is very much the exception.

The Commission's research and development system is not peer reviewed, in the sense in which the EPSRC picks projects based only on the scientific views of unpaid scientific experts. Funding decisions are made by inexpert project officers (POs), who are merely advised by reviewers, most of whom are not practising scientists but retired scientists and industrialists. They don't want to lose the lucrative stream of per diem payments that comes from giving the judgements POs want.

All this contributes to a system for supporting research that is demonstrably inferior not only to the US tradition, but also to that of the better European national programmes, such as Germany's and Britain's. It has produced little of scientific distinction, and few of the commercial breakthroughs that were its main motivation. To see this, one needs only to look at the relative number of Nobel prizes won by American, British and mainland European scientists and the dominance of US technology companies.

Some aspects of this situation are inevitable: Commission research consortia drawn from different national traditions of science and scholarship will necessarily lose much time and effort in "transaction costs", not only in travel, but also in learning to work together and understand each other.

But much of the problem is elsewhere, and captured by the features listed above: a system that is to a large degree intellectually and morally corrupt, not in financial terms, but in terms of the inflated role that POs and their unit heads give themselves. They override expert judgements to further their personal (sometimes vindictive) agendas, and support research cronies chosen for their politics rather than their distinction.

All these are features we associate stereotypically with certain EU countries, and their spread raises an unwelcome spectre for a country such as the UK, which has one of the best and most distinguished scientific cultures in the world. The fear is that the growing role of Commission research support here will in the long run corrupt our own research culture, with its impersonal civil servants and traditional emphasis on excellence.

Charlie McCreevy, a former member of the Irish Parliament and now a European commissioner, has written about how at home the French are in Brussels and Luxembourg, because the Commission's bureaucracy is "almost a copy of how the administration in Paris works; this has, over the years, given the French a huge advantage in knowing how to pull the levers of power".

Similarly, knowing how the Commission's scientific patronage system works becomes more important than your research quality. A French academic at a post-1992 institution in the UK cites as his former occupation on his LinkedIn page: "Expert (evaluator, reviewer); (Commission) Framework Programme (FP5-FP6-FP7) ... 1995-2009 (14 years)". That is the achievement he chooses to emphasise?

None of this is serious enough yet to cause one to support UKIP, but it should be disturbing. The only bright spot in recent years is the European Research Council, which has set up a system of grants for talented individuals that it claims is based only on academic reputation and achievement; the subtext here is that it is not part of the standard cronyism of pleasing the relevant Eurocrats and their personal conceptions of what should be supported or rejected, no matter what the experts say.

There have been many reviews of the Commission's own support programme, damning it for reasons such as those cited above, and which it has simply ignored or interpreted as a reason to audit the finances of projects yet more often. On its website, one can read the second recommendation of a five- year review of the Commission's Information Society programme: "Reduce bureaucracy, which aims for greater accountability, tighter controls on funding procedures and reduced risk, but now threatens to kill research."

That way of doing things has wasted billions of EU taxpayers' money: so much spent with so little return. The FP7, which runs from 2007 to 2013, has cost more than £50 billion. Yet it seems quite impossible for the Eurocrats of science to adopt what we might call a simple EPSRC approach: choose the best research by peer review, give the scientists the money, let them report at the end of the period, peer review what they have done, report back, and if the work isn't good, don't give the researchers any more money.

Instead, the Commission maintains a system of 200-page proposals, with up to 13 revisions of an accepted proposal needed before the funds flow, followed by reports of hundreds of pages every quarter and many more at the end, plus detailed and usually fictitious "exploitation plans" and audits.

The underlying intellectual fallacy is that scientific research can be laid out in advance, in meticulous detail - hence the 13 drafts! - and that scientists can later be brought to book for deviating by even the tiniest bit from such a recipe. Any practising scientist knows that this is a parody of the investigative process.

The levels of reporting and monitoring are also a gigantic nonsense, derived from software-implementation projects rather than scientific research. They lead to scientists constantly reporting and preparing to report, but unable to get down to anything serious or original.

After 30 years of involvement in more than 15 projects, most of which I wrote, some awful cases that illustrate these points stick in the memory:

  • A major French-led technology project (which cost EUR75 million at 1980s prices!) was wrecked by a PO who encouraged the project to chase after a string of new and untested theories instead of settling on a single plan of action. It produced no usable technology: the Commission to this day continues to use the US technology that the project was intended to replace.
  • A British-led project was ranked by referees above an Italian-led scheme, but the Italian PO sought to force the decision-making committee in Luxembourg to fund the second project, which was run by one of his long-term clients. However, the Swedish representative on the committee spoke up and shamed it into funding the first-ranked project as well, over the PO's objections.
  • A French PO so alienated a partner from a major US company involved in a UK-led project (by lecturing them in public at a project meeting) that the company withdrew from the consortium, saying privately that it could not work with such an official. The PO then blamed the British coordinator for the ensuing chaos and tried to stop the project. But a more senior Swedish PO overruled him and the project continued to a successful conclusion.
  • After two years of work, a very large UK-coordinated technology project suffered a putsch led by its French deputy coordinator, who had been taken on for his Commission-honed political skills rather than any intellectual or leadership acumen. His skills extended to talking the project down to its detached Belgian PO and the Italian unit head. He persuaded them to let him take over and dismiss the original coordinator, so as to "rescue" a project that was actually doing rather well.

The Italian unit head even wrote to the coordinator's UK university, saying that if it did not fire him, it would lose the Commission money and be audited immediately. The university gave in unwillingly, fired the coordinator, but was audited anyway and eventually lost the money. All this was done against the strong and explicit advice of the project's own external expert advisory committee - which the deputy immediately abolished after taking over.

In the first two cases, the PO was subsequently subjected to some form of internal discipline, although inevitably something far short of being fired.

Another recurring feature in these stories is that a project management committee (PMC) of principal investigators is powerless to control its direction if the coordinator can set up a political liaison with the PO. If this is achieved, the coordinator can threaten the PMC that, if it does not do what he wants, he will have the PO close the project down.

This really does happen, but it is unthinkable within the civil-servant mode of operation of UK and US research projects, with its implicit democracy among the scientists in a project.

Another recurrent feature, alas, is that the behaviour of POs and their unit heads is not independent of what country they come from, as the above examples illustrate.

Naively, one might have hoped that UK scientists brought up under research council conventions, when faced with situations such as those described above, would be ardent defenders of scientific freedom and the primacy of excellence and truth. My experience is personal and limited, of course, but I have found the opposite to be the case: UK scientists have little experience of, or defence mechanisms against, the sort of managerial behaviour I have described.

They lack the political skills needed to defend their position and often behave worse, under stress, than their northern or eastern European counterparts. Faced with some piece of outrageous behaviour by a Commission official, they tend to collapse when threatened with a loss of funds and simply give up, muttering "we must save jobs at all costs" while doing whatever is required of them, no matter how craven.

There is a genuine risk of the creeping imposition of a wholly alien and bureaucratic research culture on to the UK's hitherto excellent science administration. Reform would be possible only via vigorous action from the top. Europe's commissioner for its digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, had a reputation for being relatively fearless in her dealings with industry in her previous role as commissioner for competition, and she could well be the person to do something about the culture of her own staff. Without effective action, Europe's research future is bleak, particularly that of countries such as the UK.

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