Will Simplifying European Research Funding Create More Red Tape? Officials Consider 'Radical' Moves

Everyone hates bureaucracy, and European researchers are no exception. Thousands have recently signed a petition calling for a simplification of European Union research funding rules and today Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner, responded to those complaints with a speech promising to make it easier to apply for and manage research grants. But she also suggested that Europe consider more radical steps that could encourage scientists to produce specified outputs in return for money, a potentially controversial move given the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery.

According to her prepared speech, Geoghegan-Quinn agreed that European system of science funding was overly complicated and burdensome and said improvements were coming:

We have made a lot of changes already, in areas like reducing form-filling, improving IT tools and providing better guidance to applicants, for example through one-stop shop web pages. We will make more changes soon, within the current legal framework. For example, we will further improve consistency in the way rules are applied, in particular on auditing. We will improve the structure and content of the "calls for proposals" in response to which research organisations bid for funding. Once we have a new financial regulation we will be able to go further. …

We want to widen the use of "average cost methodologies" that avoid the need for projects to account separately and painstakingly for each small item of expenditure and for each specific task performed by staff. We want to use more flat rate reimbursements. The Commission also aims to allow projects to use the same accounting methods for EU funding as for national research funding. If projects are using one accounting method instead of two, that will save time and reduce errors.

Some of the changes proposed would need modfications to existing laws and thus require European Council and parliament approval, which could delay implementation until the next cycle of funding, known as Framework Programme 8 (FP8), starts several years from now. (FP7 is the current funding cycle.)

Yet researchers may wonder if the proposed simplifications will create new demands. Geoghegan-Quinn's speech vaguely suggested consideration of ways to make scientists more accountable for what they produce:

We want to consider truly radical innovations to EU research funding policy. Radical changes can sometimes be common sense changes. The Court of Auditors itself has asked whether instead of the current system of "payment by input", we could move towards "payment by output". Agreed objectives would be set in return for funding. Payment of full amounts would be linked to whether those objectives are achieved. I think this would make financial accounting easier for scientists while making scientific controls more rigorous. That in turn can improve value for money for taxpayers.

In her speech, Geoghegan-Quinn also announced a comprehensive review of all of FP7. Even the traditional moniker of the funding effort is under scrutiny with Geoghegan-Quinn expressing disdain for the current title. "We need a new name, so we can get the message of success across to more people. A name which captures the imagination, so we can communicate European research better," she declared.