The House of Lords yesterday called for a "root and branch reform" of the European Union's multi-billion pound research effort.
Focusing its criticism on the Framework research programme, the Lords science and technology committee says that Brussels's administration of EU research and development is "expensive and inefficient". Each Framework programme lasts four years, with the current Framework 4 running over 1994-98. The programme attracts Pounds 9.5 billion in funding - 4 per cent of the total EU budget.
In a report on the programme, the Lords support the concept of EU Framework programmes but are "unimpressed" by the direct research outcomes of the initiative so far: "Similar outcomes could have been achieved by spending the same amounts of money at national or global level."
Far from being a selective programme to complement and add value to the research programmes of EU member states, Framework has ended up being little more than what a leading scientific nation might have in place on a national scale, the Lords said. The Lords reject the commission's claim to a "distinct scientific agenda".
They highlight three major problems for the United Kingdom in participating in Framework. First, the programme makes "inadequate" provision for the associated costs of a funded researcher, so a university which is too successful in winning Framework programmes might "bankrupt" itself.
Second, a dispute between the commission and UK customs, means that universities are having to bear the cost of VAT on Framework projects.
Finally, the vexed issue of "attribution", whereby every pound that the UK contributes to Framework is subtracted from the R&D budget of the relevant UK government department, is out of step with the rest of the EU, says the report.
The single most important reform needed is for Framework to focus on a smaller range of subjects and topics. The commission has repeatedly signalled its intention to slim down the programme. The Lords were therefore "astonished" to see that the commission's tentative plans for Framework 5 reproduced all the programmes under Framework 4 as well introducing new topics including food, water and the city of tomorrow.