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Experts Call For ‘people Before Projects’ Revamp Of EU Research Programme

Experts call for ‘people before projects’ revamp of EU research programme

New report from influential group recommends ditching large-scale projects in favour of funding outstanding individual researchers, getting rid of submission deadlines and awarding smaller grants to make the pie go further.

EU research programmes should fund individuals rather than large teams, scrap submission deadlines and award smaller grants, says a new analysis by RISE, an expert group which advises the European Commission on research and innovation.

Their 228-page report discusses measures to improve EU science funding, including re-focusing research funding on people rather than projects and introducing a more methodical process for reviewing proposals.

“The extreme competition for limited resources brought about in part from low funding success rates and limited principal investigator-driven funding opportunities creates an incentive structure that has a direct negative impact on open science,” the report says.

The recommendations are the latest – and among the more influential – of hundreds of suggestions that the Commission is being deluged with as it begins drafting its next big research and innovation effort, Framework Programme 9. The opinions, from across the EU, generally call for an increase in funding from the current, €77 billion, seven-year programme; but they also criticise the huge amount of time and effort required to apply for the EU grants and the record-low probability of actually winning one.

RISE’s opinion tracks these concerns and has more sway with the Commission because it is an officially designated group that, in one guise or another, has been directly advising top EU officials for more than a decade.

Natural collaborations

The EU should shift funds away from big collaborative projects, where a minimum of three partners from three countries are required, towards individual, principal investigator-driven funding schemes in the mould of the European Research Council.

“Collaboration in general is an important element of the research process, but there is a need to find better ways to encourage natural collaborations rather than mandating collaboration as a prerequisite,” RISE says.

Ultimately, there is a need to support a move towards funding centred on “people, not projects,”, in line with the approach of funding organisations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome Trust, or the Max Planck Society.

“Given the difficulty in predicting which projects will be successful, it may be productive to alternatively focus on identifying researchers with exceptional track records who are likely to continue to succeed,” the report says.

Big collaborative projects have their problems. The larger networks required to form successful proposals make it difficult for newcomers to lever their way into the system, while the burden of preparing proposals is often most effectively navigated by well-established researchers and institutions.

The report suggests scrapping submission deadlines too, as a way of controlling the huge number of applications received currently.

The Commission has struggled with the logistics of evaluating a rising number of grant proposals that in turn have propelled funding rates to historic lows. A way to deal with this would be to follow the example of funding agencies such as the US National Science Foundation, which have found that eliminating application deadlines decreases the number of grant proposals received, the report says.

Faced with extremely low success rates in the current programme, Horizon 2020, researchers are submitting multiple applications. This translates into the loss of many months of research activity and productivity, according to the report.

To improve the success rate and stop excellent proposals missing out, grant amounts could be adjusted so that all applications that meet evaluation criteria and are considered excellent receive some funding, even if the total awarded for some or all grants is less than the originally proposed budgets, the report adds.

Closed vision dominates

The RISE expert group, 31 people drawn from the academic, industry and policy worlds, reviewed Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas’ three O’s policy of open science, open innovation and a Europe open to the world.

Their report is spurred by the perception that the broad mission of opening up science has stalled during a time of apparent disdain for evidence and the value of international collaboration.

Moedas made the three O’s his central policy plank back in 2014. Times have changed, said Luc Soete, professor of international economic relations at Maastricht University and lead author of the RISE report. “When you see Brexit and the Trump election, you can see what has dominated in the world recently is a closed vision,” Soete said.

The report makes a number of suggestions to accelerate the free publication of articles and data, saying the Commission should instruct reviewers and review panels for all EU-funded grants to accept preprints – papers published before peer review – as evidence for the quality of research.

There is overwhelming pressure for researchers to publish high-profile papers in order to compete for the largest, most prestigious grants.

But evaluators should also “explicitly and directly reward” open access publishing, data sharing, and open resource development, the report says. The use of evaluation metrics such as number of publications and journal impact factors, “Should not be allowed to substitute for meaningful assessments of the content and quality of an individual’s scientific output,” RISE says.

Preparing for Horizon 2020 successor

The Commission has been reviewing the performance of the €77 billion Horizon 2020 programme since the beginning of the year, amid concerns in Brussels that the imminent exit of the UK will lead to a cut in the research budget in the future.

To convince member states of the need to maintain – or increase –research resources, EU officials are stressing the importance of building up evidence of the impact of research spending ahead of negotiations on the future EU budget. Another expert group headed by the influential former director-general of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy, will publish its vision for the 2021- 2028 EU research programme next month.

Several MEPs have called for an increase in the science budget to €100 billion.


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