New research rules give universities more freedom, but also bring more risk, says Richard Tomlin
Universities witnessed scenes of frenetic activity as the deadline approached for the first round of applications to the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). With €17.5 billion (£12 billion) on offer, it is hardly surprising that cash-starved researchers were eager to get a share of the EU's largesse. But putting together a proposal is only the start of the work needed to get an FP6 project off the ground.
This is because the EU responded to complaints about the bureaucracy that bedevilled previous Framework projects by giving the consortium conducting the research unprecedented freedom in managing the project. Gone are line-item budgets telling each partner how much they may spend on what.
Instead there is a single figure - the maximum contribution the EU will make over the life of the project, which can be up to five years. The rest is left to the consortium to decide.
It is up to the consortium to judge the most effective way of achieving the project goals, if necessary dropping some partners and picking up new ones along the way. Being in at the start is no guarantee of being in at the end. This is radical stuff; nothing like it has been tried before. How does a consortium comprising, say, 40 groups drawn from academia and industry and spread across a dozen countries make such crucial decisions? We don't know, but we will soon find out.
The risk for universities and their researchers is that they may be marginalised in vital decision-making. Companies investing heavily in projects will want to call the tune; their people will claim superior skills and resources in managing big projects.
But universities are also investing heavily. Studies have shown consistently that the cost to a university of participating in an EU project is at least equivalent to the costs it recovers from the EU. So, for every €1 received, the university must spend €1 from its own resources on permanent staff time, facilities and overheads.
What does the university get for its investment? It probably wants to develop and exploit commercially valuable results and to gain access to results generated by the other members of the consortium. This means that intellectual property rights are vital. In FP6, intellectual property rights are left to the consortium rather than to the EU, as was the case in previous Frameworks. Almost everything is open to negotiation; but the partners must reach agreement before the project starts.
This presents universities with enormous challenges. They will have to define and then argue their interests in the face of partners who may have different priorities, evaluate the implications of alternative solutions, and negotiate a satisfactory compromise. Time is not on their side; decisions will have to be made in just a few months. Partners who drag their feet and threaten to delay the start of the project risk being ousted from the consortium.
The financial consequences and the impact on future research could be substantial. Universities will be able to cope with the pressure only if they marshal their resources effectively. Deciding on a governance structure that secures the university's interests, evaluating the intellectual property rights position, assessing how the university can recover its investment in the project, and then negotiating under severe deadlines is not something a researcher can do alone. The skills of contracts managers, business development officers and technology-transfer professionals will have to be combined with those of researchers to stand any chance of success.
UK universities are better placed than most to respond to these challenges. In recent years, many have invested in acquiring people with the necessary skills. Now is the time for them to benefit from that investment.
Richard Tomlin was director of research services at Newcastle University. He is now a director of Bluebell Research Ltd. He spoke at the RAGnet Spring Workshop for UK research administrators in Bristol on Thursday.