Brexit puts greater spotlight on EU funding efficiency drive

Figures in recent EUA report suggest auditing of EU-funded projects can cost universities five times more than reviews of national grants 

March 11, 2020
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The importance of the European Union’s next research programme finding ways to streamline the way it funds and reviews projects may take on an added significance in the wake of Brexit, it has been suggested.

According to the European University Association’s Public Funding Observatory study, audits of Horizon 2020 grant funding can cost universities five times more than for nationally funded research due to the amount of time staff spend supporting and responding to post-project checks. 

Cutting costs such as these has become more important given that there is a “risk” that money available for the next funding programme – Horizon Europe – will not increase in real-terms due to pressures on the overall EU budget, including from Brexit, the report suggests.

“This raises the question of the capacity to complete additional missions and goals assigned to the new programme,” the report says. “In this context, not only is it important to secure more ambitious funding…but also to ensure greater efficiency of the EU funding programmes to make best use of the existing funds.”

Thomas Estermann, the EUA’s director for governance, funding and public policy development, and co-author of the report, said although EU funding “represents only a small fraction” of income for many institutions, “they often have to invest more resources in staff dealing with EU-funded projects than in staff supporting nationally funded projects”.

“Such investment comes on top of mandatory co-funding that has to be provided by beneficiaries for their participation in Horizon 2020.”

As well as the cost of responding to EU audits, the EUA has also highlighted other “hidden” costs it says are associated with participating in European research programmes, such as the spending on failed bids and a high risk of not meeting complex rules that are part of grant agreements.

Last year the EUA estimated that European universities and research centres had so far spent almost £6 billion on unsuccessful grant applications to Horizon 2020, based on estimates that it costs on average about €50,000 (£44,000) to submit an application and the success rate was about 12 per cent.

Mr Estermann said it was of the “utmost importance” that Horizon Europe had enough funding to “support significantly more high-quality proposals” so that there was not a “waste” of universities’ limited resources.

The EUA has also called for “better alignment” in Horizon Europe between EU and national rules on funding including a “broader acceptance” of institutions’ own accounting practices and a “more flexible” model for grant contracts in a bid to increase efficiency.

Debates over red tape in EU funding programmes could be seized on by the UK during negotiations over its potential participation in Horizon Europe

An open letter from the Vote Leave campaign ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum called EU research programmes “unnecessarily bureaucratic” while Dominic Cummings – Vote Leave’s campaign director and now senior adviser to Boris Johnson – has been behind a drive to cut bureaucracy from UK research funding.

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The EU’s next framework programme, Horizon Europe, is due to start in just over a year. But while its broad shape is settled, political wrangling over budget and participation rights means researchers are still unclear over their future funding prospects. David Matthews reports from Brussels

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