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Ombudsman urges online portal for Covid-19 funding problems


Inquiry into Commission’s handling of Marie Skłodowska-Curie complaints finds researchers ‘not fully aware’ of constraints

The European Ombudsman has recommended that the European Commission create a “dedicated online platform” for researchers whose work is disrupted by Covid-19, after an inquiry of the Commission’s handling of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions grants.

The ombudsman’s letter and findings come after the office received two complaints from researchers participating in MSCA grants, resulting in an official investigation, which began on 2 October. The Initiative for Science in Europe, a group covering learned societies and young researchers, said in its complaint that the Commission had failed to support grantees by not offering them extra funding. 

Instead of providing costed extensions, which it is legally not permitted to do, the Commission and the Research Executive Agency that oversees MSCA grants offered to suspend projects or extend deadlines. They said unspent institutional funding from the grants could also be redirected to grantees themselves.

Researcher rights information

Emily O’Reilly, the ombudsman, found that the Commission acted in accordance with EU law. But she said that information on the rights of researchers affected by Covid-19 was hard to find, and that there was no formal complaint procedure for such specific cases.

“I would like to ask the Commission to consider providing the research community with a dedicated online platform through which they can raise problems they are facing due to Covid-19 restrictions,” Emily O’Reilly wrote in a 22 December letter to Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. “I would urge you to continue in your efforts to find solutions for all MSCA researchers whose work was affected by the Covid-19 crisis."

In her investigation, O’Reilly determined that the Commission appropriately informed funding recipients of measures to mitigate against Covid-19 disruptions. However, “while the Commission drew the attention of project partners to these possible measures, it never explained to the research community why it is not possible to grant paid extensions or emergency funding,” she wrote.

O’Reilly asked the Commission to make “one final effort” to examine whether a clause that allows MSCA projects related to Covid-19 to receive extra funding can be applied to other grants. She also said she was not aware of peer-reviewed evidence of the pandemic disproportionally affecting female researchers—a point made by complainants—but that she “considers this an important issue” and encouraged the Commission to look into it.

Ombudsman position ‘welcomed’

Nathalie Conrad, one of the MSCA researchers who filed the original complaint, said: “We particularly welcome the EU ombudsman’s position for researchers’ rights, equality of treatment among MSCA researchers and gender equality.”

The ombudsman encouraged the Commission to publish the outcome of an internal survey to gauge how many MSCA fellows have been affected by Covid-19 disruptions—a point of contention raised by the Initiative for Science in Europe.

The Commission has been approached for comment.