Experts advise Europe to ‘cut grant size to fund more researchers’

As talks begin on Horizon 2020 successor, advisory body says level of competition prevents open data sharing

May 17, 2017
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European research grant sizes should be cut so that more researchers can be funded, according to an analysis from a group that advises the European Commission.

The recommendation comes as debate intensifies over the potential shape of the next European Union research framework programme, which will succeed Horizon 2020, the current scheme, in 2021.

Intense competition for research grants and career security has meant that academics are reluctant to share their data, slowing the scientific process, argued the research, innovation and science policy experts group, made up of senior researchers from across Europe, in a book released yesterday.

“There is increasingly intense competition at nearly every career stage,” says Europe's Future: Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World.

“This creates an incentive structure that is not truly conducive to doing the best possible science, nor to doing it openly. It can encourage secrecy at best, and tempt a loss of research integrity at worst,” it argues.

Echoing other critics of Horizon 2020, the group bemoans the programme’s 14 per cent grant success rate, a fall from 20 per cent under its predecessor, which ran until 2014. At such low success rates, it is “nearly impossible to discriminate meaningful differences in quality”, leading to “random outcomes” in selection, the analysis says.

As a solution, they suggest reducing the size of grants so that all applications that meet “evaluation criteria” receive at least some funding, even if this means it is not enough to cover their proposed budgets.

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The group makes a number of other suggestions: for example, increasing the amount of funding for principal investigator-led research, rather than collaborations by large numbers of academics, in order to allow the “best researchers to pursue their most creative ideas”.

The flood of grant applications received every year could be reduced by removing deadlines from calls for proposals, it also suggests, following an example set by the US National Science Foundation.

And funders should adopt a two-stage application process to winnow out weaker proposals before requiring them to work up detailed, time-consuming proposals, it says. The current single-stage application process means that “thousands of pages of proposals are written that never get seen by evaluators”, the group adds.

The European Research Council’s scientific council also put out a statement about the successor to Horizon 2020, arguing for the council’s continued scientific autonomy, more flexibility over how it works, and an increase in budget to a minimum of €4 billion (£3.4 billion) a year (in 2019, its budget is set to be about €2 billion).

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