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‘Radical’ simplification harms gender balance

Image: Flazingo Photos [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Commission warned off stripped-down Framework applications

Important information on women’s participation in the EU’s Framework programme could be lost due to an overzealous emphasis on simplifying application procedures, observers have told Research Europe.

Christina Ullenius, a Swedish engineer who sits on the board of the European Women Rectors Association, said that the European Commission must closely monitor how women and men fare in EU programmes.

“If we want to really maintain pressure on the issues of women’s participation, we have to sacrifice simplification in some cases,” she said.

“Men are more often the principal investigators of Horizon 2020 funded proposals,” Ullenius explained. “Where are the women and what role do they have? If I push to investigate this, I’m complicating things—because it would require more data.”

But collecting the data would run contrary to the goal of “radical simplification” described by the EU’s research commissioner Carlos Moedas as “one of the defining features of Horizon 2020”.

The push for simpler rules and procedures is supported by large swathes of Europe’s researchers. Applicants to the programme regularly complain about unnecessary bureaucracy, which discourages smaller and poorer institutions and small businesses.

Cutting red tape is “a major prerequisite for achieving the Commission’s policy objectives”, Moedas said in February, after presenting a package of financial simplification measures for Horizon 2020. Around 80 per cent of respondents in the Horizon 2020 midterm evaluation survey said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the simplification of rules and procedures.

But in its extreme, radical simplification could reduce data collection to the bare minimum required for the implementation of a grant agreement, some researchers have warned. This could end the collection of information about the gender of applicants and participants, they say.

“Simplification in financial procedures is an area where gender issues have previously arisen,” said Anna Scaife, an astrophysicist who heads the Interferometry Centre of Excellence at the University of Manchester in the UK. “Simplifying financial practices to the level of individual institutions may make the management burden smaller, but it can remove the ability of researchers to support childcare costs or gender training.”

Therefore, although simplification is a good thing, the Commission must always weigh up its costs and benefits, Scaife said. Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council are “beacons of gender equality”, she said. “It would be extremely unfortunate if that reputation were tarnished by insufficient consideration of the potential impact of simplification measures.”

“This is an extremely important issue,” said Ullenius, who is part of a group that is preparing Sweden’s priorities for the next Framework programme. She said that she would push for the inclusion of a relevant recommendation in the Swedish Framework 9 position paper.

There are potential dangers beyond the impact on gender-equality monitoring, said Wolfgang Burtscher, the deputy head of the directorate-general for research. He told the Smart Regions 2.0 conference in Helsinki on 2 June that performance reporting in previous Framework programmes took a hit from over-simplification. Performance reporting was drastically reduced in Framework 6 when the Commission paid heed to accusations of unnecessary red tape, and as a result, “we did not have a single piece of evidence of what we achieved,” he said. 

The Commission “got it quite right” with Horizon 2020, which has 96 performance indicators for impact evaluation, Burtscher said.

The EU should make sure to replicate that success in Framework 9, says Scaife. The implication of radical simplification should not be that gender balance is lost as a performance indicator for EU-funded research. “That would be a huge step backwards.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe