Auditors Slam Red Tape at E.U. Science Funder

Framework Program 7/European Union

BRUSSELS—Scientists seeking grants from the European Union's main research funding program—known as Framework Programme 7 (FP7)—face unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, says the European Union's budget watchdog. In a report presented here today, the European Court of Auditors writes that FP7 procedures remain complex and sometimes inconsistent, despite recent improvements.

The findings could aid a controversial effort by the European Commission to revamp funding procedures for the next 7-year E.U. funding program, known as Horizon 2020 and scheduled to start next year. FP7 began in 2007 and ends this year.

One of the report's main criticisms is that FP7 rules are often incompatible with widespread research accounting and management practices. For example, 59% of FP7 funding recipients surveyed by the court said that they had to change the systems that they used to track how researchers spent their time to match the European Commission's rules for personnel reimbursement, creating administrative headaches. Funding recipients also reported facing inconsistent interpretations of FP7 rules, in part because practices varied among different parts of the commission and even from one staff member to another.

The court also found that researchers at low risk of mismanaging money "are subject to too many controls," adding that the commission should focus its financial checks on the institutions most prone to accounting errors. One improvement, the report noted, could be to adopt a practice used in Switzerland and elsewhere, which assigns risk ratings to funding recipients based on their record in previous financial checks.

The report is a "reasonable assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of FP7," a European Commission spokesman said in a statement. The commission will address its recommendations, he added, including those suggesting ways to improve information technology systems and allocate administrative staff members. The European Commission had already made "modifications" to FP7 rules to help them align with existing practices, he noted, "and this will continue in Horizon 2020."

Some of the proposed Horizon 2020 rules are proving controversial, however. In particular, the commission wants to use a single flat rate for the reimbursement of indirect research costs—an idea that universities, research organizations, and national funding agencies have repeatedly criticized, arguing that the flat rate could unfairly decrease their funding levels. The issue remains a stumbling block in Horizon 2020 negotiations between research ministers and the European Parliament.