Big figures but small returns

August 8, 2003

UK science wins a lot of Framework cash, but changes are needed to make it truly valuable, says Melissa Terras

Since 1984, the Framework Programmes have been the European Union's main instrument for the funding of science, engineering and technology research.

The overall budget of the Sixth Programme will be €17.5 billion (£12.3 billion) over three years.

Unfortunately, the European Commission does not provide conclusive statistics about the funding the UK has received from the initiative.

Figures generated by the Office of Science and Technology suggest that we get about 15 per cent of the available resources and win more than we put in. The language advantage, coupled with the need for funds, has ensured vigorous participation. This does not, however, necessarily represent value for money for the UK.

A monetary measure of "value" takes no account of the intrinsic quality of the funded research, its relevance to ongoing projects and the usefulness of the results. Neither does it consider the spread of funding across the science, engineering and technology sectors: anecdotal evidence suggests that some fields such as aeronautics are better at securing Framework funds than others such as marine science. UK industry does worse than UK academe, which probably reduces the country's economic gain. There is also concern that EU money is not sought by first-rank researchers, who tend to apply to the research councils.

"Value for money" judgements should include some consideration of efficiency. The grant application process is bureaucratic, cumbersome and time-consuming. The effort required to make a successful bid is daunting.

It is hard to prove that the return is worth the effort of submission when the competitive application process has such a high failure rate. Although the system is transparent on paper, certain skills are needed to formulate a proposal correctly - good contacts with Brussels, the ability to lobby, and aggressive applications - which many UK applicants are not aware of or comfortable with.

The long delay before funds are received is also problematic, and the procedure for allocating funds is obfuscated. The basis for determining priority areas, the criteria for identifying successful applications, and the experience and expertise of the assessors is unknown, leading to doubts about the entire selection process. The grants do not cover infrastructure or application costs: individual projects in effect subsidise the funded research by covering overheads. Newcomers to the programme are easily discouraged.

EU enlargement will lead to more competition for funds. This means UK science has to become more efficient and effective in grant applications.

Whether the government can raise participation and success rates is debatable: there is a tacit agreement that successful bids generally depend on individual initiatives and good European contacts.

The concept of the Framework programmes requires sharper decision-making and speedier implementation. Grants could be made to cover the cost of preparing proposals; an extra overhead contribution could be provided to make participation "cost-neutral". Only by learning the culture of the EU machine, encouraging streamlined procedures and promoting evaluation of the generated research will the programmes become truly valuable to, and valued by, UK science.

Melissa Terras is assistant manager of engineering policy at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

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