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MEPs: result-based funding will stifle excellence (Science & Business)

2010-10-14

MEPs: result-based funding will stifle excellence

Peter Koekoek

Members of the European Parliament have expressed concern about the impact that result-based research funding could have on the quality and nature of research..

Members of the European Parliament have expressed concern about the impact that result-based research funding could have on the quality and nature of research.

While the Parliament is likely to support a resolution agreeing that administrative procedures in EU research funding should by simplified, MEPs are worried about the Commission's move towards result-based funding in order to achieve that. The resolution calls for funding based on excellence instead.

"I am afraid that if the result is not exactly as promised, [researchers] won't get paid. This goes against the general nature of science, where unexpected results are just as important," Maria da Graça Carvalho, the Portuguese MEP who drafted the motion, told Science|Business.

Carvalho is a member of the second largest political group in the Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats, and rapporteur for the committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE).

Earlier this year, the European Commission announced plans to adopt result-based funding as a way to overcome the current chaos and complexity surrounding the administration of grants, saying setting predefined output targets would mean scientists spent more time in the lab and less in the office. According to the announcement, payment of grants would be entirely based on the assessment of the results.

Carvalho believes that the current EU funding system is not flexible enough to accommodate results-based funding. "It is too risky to implement this in Framework Programme 7, or even in Framework Programme 8. Results-based funding should be tested in pilot projects first, or only in very narrowly predefined areas." The €52 billion Framework Programme 7 (FP7) runs until 2013, and will be succeeded by FP8 in 2014.

Illustrating the dangers of result-based funding, Carvalho said, "You promise a vaccine. But when the research has been completed you have no working vaccine because of various side effects. Even though the result of the research is extremely important and scientifically relevant, it is not the promised result and you might not get paid."

Instead, the draft resolution calls for a science-based variant. Science-based funding should judge research results on its merits, and have an emphasis on scientific and technical criteria instead of on costs. Research should be judged on excellence by peers, and financial control simplified.

Carvalho identifies the Commission's strict financial and staff regulations as obstacles to a science friendly climate: "You need to be flexible if you want excellence. Current EU legislation lacks the flexibility to accommodate that. Present regulations forces Commission officials to be too strict," she says.

"We should create a climate of trust: the reason why EU research funding is so complex, is not because the Commission wants it that way, but because they were forced to by the European Court of Auditors, which resulted in layers upon layers of regulations."

The Parliament should also trust the Commission more, and allow it to become more flexible, Carvalho says. "It is necessary to strike a balance between trust and control - between risk-taking and the dangers that risk involves - in ensuring the sound financial management of EU research funds," writes Carvalho in a statement that accompanies the draft. She goes on to suggest that, "The current system should be replaced by a system that places greater trust in the applicants. A way ahead would be to simplify the monitoring of financial and administrative aspects to projects whilst reinforcing the scientific and technological assessment process."

The draft resolution has been adopted by the ITRE committee. The European Parliament is expected to discuss the resolution in plenary early next month. Carvalho expects the resolution to be adopted by Parliament: "It has the support of all political groups, from left to right."

Before being elected into Parliament last year, Carvalho was an advisor to European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in the areas of science, higher education, innovation, research policy, energy, environment and climate change.