Brussels, 25 Jul 2006
Now that the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) is on track to start in early 2007, CORDIS News tracked down some of the people working within the Programme, responsible its development. In subsequent parts, we will examine how participants have responded to calls and developed their research, and how programmes are evaluated and how this information feeds back into future Framework Programmes or into technology, products or innovation that have an influence on the world around us. But to start, we look at the development of the programme itself. How are ideas for research generated in the first place?
To answer this, CORDIS News spoke to Graham Stroud, Head of Unit for the Support for the Implementation of the Research Programmes - part of the Commission's DG Research. 'The starting point is always the previous Framework Programmes and the results and evaluations of outputs,' he says. 'Results can continue to come in a long time after the project finishes, maybe three to five years or more, so you may not see the whole picture for some time.'
This internal process coincides with gauging the views of European researchers and industry at events and conferences. The first contact the new Framework Programme has with the outside world is through a comprehensive public consultation. 'A general policy paper was put out to open consultation between July and October 2004 and a second consultation on the thematic content of FP7 was opened during November and December 2004,' he says.
At this point, companies, institutions or individuals may decide that there are research gaps which need to be filled. If you think that Europe lags in a particular area - then this is the time to make your voice heard. Of course, researchers may feel that gaps in research coincide with their own areas of expertise. This is not necessarily a problem,' says Mr Stroud.
'You are liable to have more influence if you can get together with a bigger grouping of people who can present a unified view. An EU view is required, and will have the most influence. Some research institutions cover very wide areas of research, like the Max Planck Institute or the CNRS, and they usually prefer to present their organisation's view of the whole Framework Programme, rather than in one or two narrow fields. Of course, these and similar organisations are large and influential bodies in European science, so their views will be carefully considered,' said Mr Stroud.
Once complete, the Commission condenses the information it receives from the public consultation into Framework Programme proposals, which are assessed internally, going to 'in-house inter-service consultation' within the Commission. 'All DGs have their say,' says Mr Stroud. 'It is not a linear or consecutive process; everything is happening at the same time. Ideas come in spontaneously, but there are always formal consultations. Discussion with the Programme Committees is important.'
Programme Committees are formed of experts from Member States, and representatives from associate countries. They play a formal role - they vote and have to agree on the Commission's management of programmes. 'The relation between committees and the Commission is often referred to as comitology,' explains Mr Stroud.
'The Programme Committee checks how the Commission manages the programme and feeds in ideas and suggestions. This system of checks and balances is important for the Commission, but there is a trade-off to achieve between over-regulation and under-regulation. We try to avoid the Programme Committees wanting to micro-manage too much,' he says.
The Commission's proposals now have to be assessed, going to the Commission's own expert advisory groups, who give an unbiased view. At this stage, the Commission also carries out an impact assessment. 'Here we use econometric models to see what the effect of what we propose would be on the economy. For FP7, the extended impact assessment was a major piece of work. There is a whole unit devoted to carrying out impact assessments, looking at different scenarios and sounding out effects,' he says.
All of this advice forms the basis of the Framework Programme text - known as the Policy Framework. The Policy Framework for FP7 was presented in April 2005. It had to then move through a political procedure for approval, which starts with the European Parliament. 'This can last up to 18 months, and we are now [June 2006] about 15 months through that process.'
Are the Commission's ideas for FP7 better than the European Parliament's? 'Well, they may not be,' says Mr Stroud, 'so the Commission has to justify the proposals that have been made. But you have to respect the views of the Parliament while trying to defend what you believe is correct. Why shouldn't the Parliament have good ideas? This is a genuine dialogue with each institution putting over its viewpoint and defending its views in the debates and committee meetings.'
The Parliament tables amendments to the text - its own ideas on how the finished Framework Programme should look. The number of amendments can add up quickly. For FP7 there were 1,700. 'We can take on a large number of amendments because often the same sorts of ideas are proposed in different amendments. Where the Commission has more difficulty is when the amendments ask to add areas, which might risk spreading the budget too thinly, or where they go outside the scope of what the Treaty allows for the FP,' he says.
Parallel discussions take place with Council representatives, who also propose amendments to the Framework Programme text. Both sets of amendments go before a formal first reading in the European Parliament. Here, the Council adopts its 'Common Position'. If there is complete agreement, then the Framework Programme is adopted. However, there is normally a second round of discussions and amendments before agreement.
The Council may decide that it wants to ignore the Parliament's views. This can be a problem, and the proposal may have to go to conciliation. 'The Council and Parliament have to be very aware of the other side's views,' says Mr Stroud. 'In the end, all these amendments have their uses for improving the text of the Framework Programme. Elected representatives should be heeded,' he says.
Once Council and Parliament are in agreement, then the Framework Programme has been agreed. The Specific Programmes - the detailed programmes for research - are debated and adopted in parallel. 'For the Specific Programmes, there is a single Parliamentary consultation and then adoption by Council,' says the Head of Unit. The Specific Programmes give the Commission the power to spend money.
The Council and Parliament also have to adopt the Rules for Participation, which set out the basic rules for running the research programmes - who can participate and under which conditions.
Now, the specific work programmes must be set out. The work programmes are 'where we have the very detailed expressions of the kind of projects we are looking for,' says Mr Stroud. 'These are always drawn up in consultation with external advisory groups and other DGs and the programme committees, who always have to give approval.' Work programmes cannot be adopted unless the programme committee gives a positive opinion, given by a qualified majority. As with all the legal texts, while the work programmes are adopted later, they are prepared in parallel with the Framework Programme text.
'If the programme committee's opinion is negative, it is a disaster, and the decision goes back to Council level for adoption - a minimum of three months to sort out,' he says. 'Fortunately, this has occurred only once in the history of the Framework Programme.'
Once there is agreement, and the work programmes have been adopted by the Commission, so begins the Framework Programme, and calls can be issued. For FP7, the first calls will most likely be issued in early 2007.
In the next part we will see how calls are timetabled, how proposals are assessed and how the Commission decides who receives funding.