R&D grant rules are simplified (Science|Business)


Anna Jenkinson, Science|Business - see complete article here

It's a year since Maire Geoghegan-Quinn stepped into her post, promising to be a woman of action. This week came the first concrete fruits of that pledge, with a pruning of R&D grant rules. But how much progress is the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science judged to have made elsewhere?

A year ago at her confirmation hearing Maire Geoghegan-Quinn told MEPs she was a "woman of action" who would fight for her areas of responsibility. This week came a concrete sign she has started to deliver on this promise, with the adoption of three measures - with immediate effect - that are intended to simplify the administration of Framework Programme 7 research grants.

"I pledged on my first day in office to cut the red tape which hinders our Research Framework Programmes and holds back Europe's research and innovation capacity. Today, with my colleagues, I am delivering the first steps," the Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science said this week, as she announced the rule changes.

These include allowing more flexibility in how personnel costs are calculated so that grant holders can apply their usual accounting methods when requesting reimbursement for staff costs and allowing owner managers of small companies whose salaries are not formally registered in the accounts to claim for their time.

As a third measure, senior officials from all relevant Commission departments and agencies will get together and compare notes on how rules on research funding are applied across the various directorates, with the aim of removing inconsistencies.

It's hardly heart-stirring stuff, but the bureaucracy around Framework Programme research grants has long been recognised as a deterrent to applicants and Geoghegan-Quinn can be seen to have applied her expertise from the Court of Auditors to push through one positive measure.

A strategic approach to research and innovation

Other initiatives to improve the environment for R&D will be more difficult to deliver. The biggest idea to come forward in the first year is the Innovation Union, which Geoghegan-Quinn says is, "The first truly strategic approach to research and innovation." The plan brings together ideas on enhancing public-private cooperation, encouraging public procurement of novel products and services, and improving access to finance.

"It's a good framework with a nice perspective, but will it be turned into concrete actions and will it work?" asks Reinhilde Veugelers, professor at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Senior Fellow at the Bruegel think tank. "Innovation policies do not need a radical overhaul, but the implementation of good policies, using an evidence-based policy governance. These good policies have already been talked about for years. Now, they need to be implemented," she said.

The many strands of the Innovation Union cut across different directorates, with the overall strategy being launched in partnership with Antonio Tajani, the Commissioner for industry and entrepreneurship. Other directorates that have a stake in how the strategy develops include those dealing with the internal market, information society, climate change, the environment and education.

Competing for innovation

Opinions are split on how good the communication is between commissioners. "It's not something we're very used to, sharing areas. But there will be more and more cross-cutting policies in the future," believes MEP Maria da Graça Carvalho (EPP, Portugal). "Other DGs [directorate-generals] have different priorities and different opinions than [those of] research," she said, adding that in her opinion Geoghegan-Quinn is the one leading the process and is collaborating well with colleagues in other departments.

Veugelers is less impressed. "They all say they're talking to each other but I'm not so convinced. The danger is that they are all competing for 'innovation' to feed their own agenda, rather than cooperating to increase the effectiveness of innovation policy with a more systemic perspective."

The cross-cutting nature of the Innovation Union is exemplified in the EU's latest collaborative research vehicle, the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP), each of which will focus on a grand challenge. The first partnership is on active and healthy ageing. The aim of the EIPs is to identify research that can be used to tackle each problem and ensure breakthroughs are quickly brought to market. By identifying its priorities for action, the Commission wants to influence the direction of innovation and provide certainty for industry on which technologies it will fund.

The emphasis on the grand challenges, how scientists' work should contribute in practice, and how it could improve lives, is, "A wake-up call to many in the world of science," said Christopher Hull, Secretary General of the trade association EARTO, which represents Europe's specialised research and technology organisations.

Getting buy-in from member states

It is not yet clear exactly how innovation partnerships will work in practice. The Commission is seeking views in a consultation that closes tomorrow (January 28). The partnerships will also be under discussion at next week's European Council (February 4), where innovation will be a main topic. This will be Geoghegan-Quinn's opportunity to get buy-in from heads of state for the Innovation Union and the EIPs.

Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn's first year in office also coincided with the mid-term review of the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) and preparation for its successor programme. She has a minor but significant pledge to fulfill here, having promised to come up with a new name for Framework that does more to convey the nature and scope of these research programmes.

The review is critical to Geoghegan-Quinn's agenda, as Veugelers noted, "The framework programme is THE instrument the commissioner [has] to influence innovation policy in Europe." If the Commissioner wants a new look to the post-2013 programme, it will take more than the standard public consultation procedures, according to Veugelers. "These typically do not succeed to get the views and insights from 'outsiders'. Open meetings where EC policy officers listen and discuss with a full spectrum of [stakeholders] would work better," she said.

Keep Framework simple

However, Carvalho believes there should not to be "change for change's sake." The good elements of FP7 should be kept, while making it, "Much simpler in terms of administrative rules," and reducing the number of instruments. The successor programme should continue to be driven by science and industry, while also placing more focus on societal challenges. "Keep it simple. Avoid lots of sub-groups," Carvalho said.

"I'm happy with the performance of Maire Geoghegan-Quinn and her team. They're pragmatic and down-to-earth. In one year they've put forward a lot of work," said Carvalho, who worked closely with them on simplification in particular, as the rapporteur on this issue.

The next moves to simplify FP7 accounting rules are due to come into effect on 1 January 2012, when the EU's Financial Regulation is amended. These changes are intended to allow more flexibility, for example, there will be an increase in the tolerable risk of error in certain fields, including research projects.

So, some changes have been introduced on Geoghegan-Quinn's watch, but far more are still awaited. Most concur one year in is too early to say whether Geoghegan-Quinn will achieve what she set out at the start of her term.

"She created very high expectations and raised a lot of hopes. I was pleasantly surprised by her willingness to be ambitious," said Veugelers. "I guess in her first year, she learned how difficult it is to implement new ideas. It's too early to form a judgment, but I'm still hopeful that she does not give up 'walking the walk' and not only 'talking the talk'."