Go back

Conflicting goals make research funding less effective

Using project funding to both support excellence and close research divides between EU member states isn’t working, says Peter Hardi.

Those who devise, apply to and evaluate EU research funding programmes know that there are written and unwritten rules for including partners from the former communist member states of eastern Europe in research consortia.

Many applicants believe that having an eastern European partner on their proposal improves their chances of success. Evaluators also tend to view such collaborations positively.

This reflects the multiple aims of the Framework programme. On the one hand, it is designed simply to fund the best research teams with the best ideas to increase the scientific competitiveness of the EU. On the other hand, it has the goal of building networks and collaborations across the EU, to help countries with weaker research systems catch up with the stronger.

This relationship between scientific excellence and network and capacity building is at the centre of many debates around EU research policy—not least about the aims and form of Horizon Europe, the next Framework programme set to run from 2021. The fear is that competitive research funding schemes are still based on potentially conflicting principles. Meritocracy, where scientific excellence is the principal criterion for funding, is central. But equal access and regional equality, where research funds are a tool for convergence, are also important.

I believe that EU research policy creates a conflict between scientific and political objectives. Furthermore, this conflict reduces its effectiveness. Gauging the success of research funding is hard. Evaluation processes are controversial and still only partially developed.

We cannot yet tell whether funding targeted at scientific excellence is making the EU a leader for research and innovation. But the goal of reducing inequalities in research infrastructures and resources has certainly been missed. The EU’s research landscape remains unequal, with central and eastern European countries lagging as recipients of EU funds. By the number of applicants, all countries in central and eastern Europe rank in the lowest quartile. In terms of winning research funds, none were in the top half of the 28 member states.

For the Framework 7 programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013, only Budapest (at number 43) and Warsaw (number 46) featured in the EU’s top 50 regions for participation and funding. Counting institutional participation in the same programme, measured as the number of signed grant agreements, there were none from central or eastern Europe in the top 50.

These numbers do not prove that research funding decisions have compromised the principle of meritocracy, although they do not disprove it, either. They do, however, underscore the fact that the EU’s efforts to use competitive research funding to promote social justice in research and innovation has failed to decrease inequalities among member states. The figures for Horizon 2020 show that central and eastern Europe are falling further behind.

How might the funding system be improved? Are project grants the right way to build networks and a more equal research system, or should other instruments be used more? There are already EU financial instruments devoted to promoting academic network building and mobility, in the shape of the Erasmus+ programme for student mobility and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, which fund researcher mobility, including exchanges of research and innovation staff.

There are also several funding instruments aimed at promoting equality and social justice among member states. These include the European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund. So far, only part of the ERDF has been used to support research and innovation. Policymakers could do more to use these instruments instead of project funding as a means of closing gaps in research strengths between member states.

If these instruments are not sufficient, and decision-makers in the European Commission wish to continue using research and innovation programmes to further the goal of equality, they need to be ready to accept the possibility of conflicts between different goals, and compromise in the meritocratic aspect of funding decisions. In this case, funding calls and evaluation criteria should openly and transparently discuss the presence of different and potentially conflicting objectives.

As well as the best way to support research, this is an issue of the most effective use of public funds. Do potentially conflicting objectives within a financial instrument—in this case research grants—reduce the programme’s effectiveness? If the answer is yes, they may not be the most appropriate tools for that purpose.

Peter Hardi is professor emeritus in the department of economics and business at Central European University, Budapest. He is speaking at the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators 2019 conference held in Bologna from 27 to 29 March.

More to say? Email news@researchresearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Europe