Should the EU’s next research programme be ERC writ large?

A new report from research and innovation advisory group RISE recommends that the the European Commission move away from funding large-scale R&D projects, and instead focus more on supporting individual researchers. Such a change in research infrastructure would shift the model of Europe’s next framework programme FP9 – successor to the current Horizon 2020 – to something like that employed on a smaller scale by the European Research Council. Éanna Kelly from Science|Business provides some useful background, and his article contains a rather telling comment…

“[The RISE] 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.”

As someone who as a research scientist was closely involved with FP7 – the predecessor to Horizon 2020 – and as a communications consultant worked within FP7 and H2020, I have doubts about the proposed move. My concerns are based on personal experience of the pros and cons of the respective corporate and individual-centred models of research funding.

As a research physicist in the early noughties, I was part of a consortium that bid for and received financial support from FP7. This was the LOFAR/LOIS radio astronomy and upper atmosphere science project. FP7 was designed to foster large-scale collaborations between geographically-dispersed consortium members. H2020 has taken this model a step further, based on the experience of FP7. The funding and support framework works fairly well, though a number of issues have arisen, not least a failure in some cases to fully integrate industrial partners into the funded projects, such that the commercial companies contribute to as well as take from the projects.

In sharp contrast to the EU’s framework programmes, the European Research Council focuses on supporting outstanding individuals in science and engineering. In a highly competitive and largely academic market, grants are awarded to people rather than projects and institutions, with the money used to fund research teams led by the grant holders. For example, if the research leaders decide to relocate to another institute, they take their pot of money with them, together with any contract research staff who choose to follow. The ERC is a creative solution to the problem of a research system that had become overly-managerialist, and obsessed with bean-counting metrics.

The creative successes of ERC notwithstanding, there remained the problem of how best to support the large-scale academic-industrial collaborations required to drive technological innovation and economic growth. That is why we have H2020, which by and large has been very successful. ERC and the framework programmes are solutions to different problems, and should be seen as complementary.

I say complementary, as, speaking from experience of my involvement in FP7 as an independent consultant hired to evaluate research proposals, I can safely say that I and my expert colleagues scored individual creativity highly in the evaluation process, and our European Commission Research Directorate hosts would almost always follow our recommendations. Conversely, ERC is not going to fund a wayward scientific geniuses who cannot manage complex projects. Leadership ability is key. It is public money these officials are spending, and they are ever mindful of the need to distribute it wisely and efficiently.

Looking in detail at H2020, let us take as an example the largest-scale projects funded by this programme, namely the two Future and Emerging Technology Flagships: the Graphene Flagship and Human Brain Project. For around 18 months I was in charge of science communication for the Graphene Flagship, and saw first hand how the international consortium works in practice. Of course, H2020 funds projects smaller in scale than the flagships, but they are likewise often complex in nature and a challenge to manage.

The Graphene Flagship is designed to take graphene and other two-dimensional materials from laboratory to factory floor, and then to market. It is a €1bn, 10-year project driven largely by researchers in academia and government laboratories, but drawing in commercial entities both large and small. The aim is to accelerate what is often a tortuously slow development process for emerging technologies, such that within the lifespan of the flagship 2d materials will have real economic value.

One simply cannot drive such a massive project with an R&D model that prioritises individual research leaders and their teams working within single institutions. This is not to say that the ERC model has no part in stimulating 2d materials research; it is rather that economic development must somehow be integrated into the research programme. This is what the Graphene Flagship does, and rather well from what I can see. I shall not comment on the Human Brain Project.

The €77bn H2020 programme is drawing to a close, so it is right that we look at its successes and failures, and seek to improve on it for FP9. Focusing more on primary research, the RISE report contains a number of practical proposals, such as the scrapping of application deadlines. However, for the reasons given above I have to question the call for a more person-centred approach to funding within EU framework programmes.