Bid to cut grant administrative burden ‘may have opposite effect’

Shift to lump-sum funding model for key European Research Council awards could backfire, universities fear

June 9, 2024
Participants try to wash some of the mud away at the end of the annual Maldon Mud Race in Maldon, Essex to illustrate Bid to cut grant administrative burden ‘may have opposite effect’
Source: LEON NEAL/AFP / Getty Images

Sector leaders have expressed scepticism about the European Research Council’s latest move towards lump-sum funding, warning that it could inadvertently increase administrative demands on applicants while potentially restricting their ability to conduct cutting-edge research.

“Even if the introduction of the lump-sum model is intended as a simplification measure, it can have the opposite effect,” Kamila Kozirog, a research and innovation policy analyst at the European University Association, told Times Higher Education. “In fact, it may add an extra administrative burden on researchers, who now must provide a detailed budget breakdown upfront in the application process.”

The ERC will pilot lump-sum funding in the 2024 call for advanced grant proposals, following previous adoption of the model for proof-of-concept grants. The latter scheme involves a fixed budget of €150,000 (£128,000), while advanced grant amounts vary, up to a maximum of €2.5 million with the possibility of an extra €1 million “where justified”.

The European Commission hopes to increase the use of the lump-sum model across the Horizon Europe framework programme, aiming to offer half of all funding through this method by 2027.

While the current “actual cost” model requires advanced grant recipients to track their spending throughout a project in order to claim reimbursement, the lump-sum approach will see applicants include more financial details in their initial proposal, receiving 80 per cent of the agreed funding when their project begins and 20 per cent when it is completed.

“The reason for using lump sums is that they should reduce administrative work for grantees and their host institutions,” the ERC said in a statement. “Briefly, there will be no financial accounting, no cost claims, no time sheets (at least not for the ERC – institutions may have their own internal demands for time sheets) and no financial audits.

“The lump sum will be awarded on the basis of a budget that will need to be well explained and justified in the proposal, but expenditures will then not be controlled once the grant agreement has been signed.”

Ms Kozirog suggested, however, that grant recipients would still be likely to monitor their expenditures, despite the absence of any formal requirement from the ERC. “Many beneficiaries are likely to continue using time sheets and the actual cost system, as these methods are proven and safe,” she said. “They offer a sense of security and minimise legal risks until the lump-sum pilot has been thoroughly evaluated and proven effective.”

Julien Chicot, head of research and innovation policy at the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said the ERC must ensure that the move to a lump-sum model does not stifle the experimental, fundamental research that the body funds.

“The ERC is supposed to be on the frontier of knowledge – it’s where you explore something that is unknown,” he said. “Of course, researchers will do their best to foresee what they’ll do, and they will know what they want to investigate, but there are a lot of uncertainties.”

Laura Keustermans, senior policy officer for research and education at the League of European Research Universities (Leru), agreed. “The most important thing is that a lump-sum approach is not going to hamper the independence and flexibility that ERC grantees currently have. It depends, as always, on the details and the implementation,” she said.

“This is something we at Leru will be monitoring. At this moment in time, it’s a leap of confidence in the ERC that they will do this bearing [these concerns] in mind.”

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