Is it time to think about spending EU-funded science money better?

June 25, 2017

Science policy offers a good example of both Brexit’s practical challenges and its genuine opportunities. British universities have done well in attracting funding from EU programmes: some 16 per cent of UK university research funding comes from EU grants. Vice-chancellors were strident and vivid in expressing their support for the EU ahead of the referendum, and have been lachrymose since its result.

The EU Commission — a benign science fairy?

In this high-table badinage, the EU Commission is presented as a benign institution, which supports and stimulates science and plays a critical role in funding UK science. The interesting thing about this judgement is that it ignores the Commission’s approach to science funding, and the record of the principal EU science programme, Horizon 2020. Among leading scientists, there has been concern about the quality of both its science advice and its willingness to allow science advice to be given to it. At the heart of this concern lies the unfortunate episode of the removal of the Commission’s first chief scientific adviser and the disbanding of her team. The scientist involved is a distinguished molecular biologist, who served as a highly-regarded senior scientific adviser to the Government of Scotland. The matter that resulted in her removal and the dismantling of her team was a refusal to advise that GM crop research and use should be banned on scientific grounds, as opposed to those relating to cultural or political sensibilities. This apparently irritated the Green group in the European Parliament, and, amidst the political process that led to the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as President of the Commission, he promised to remove this source of ‘politically unhelpful’ advice.

The EU Commission is not unique in having decided to ignore evidence-based advice or in having fallen out with scientists. Both the Nixon administration and the Home Secretaries of the last Labour Government offer good examples of the tension that can erupt in such situations. Richard Nixon managed not to only abolish the post of Scientific Adviser to the President, but also to provoke the resignations of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service of the United States and the Director of the National Institutes of Health. As Home Secretary, Alan Johnson famously dismissed Professor Nutt of Imperial College as Chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs because of his views on the relative safety of regulated drugs, such as cannabis. Nonethelss, the EU certainly cannot be presented as some form of Weberian ideal type when it comes to science policy.

The error of allowing politics and bureaucracy to distort decisions on science funding

As well as defects in the way that advice on science is given at the highest level, the EU’s funding programmes deserve scrutiny in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and economy. Its principal science programmes emerged from the Framework Programmes that began in 1986. These combined three elements: research, the development of new products, and a wider objective of building a European scientific community. Research grants tended to be determined by the principle of proportionality  — essentially shared research programmes, where funding is divided among different countries — rather peer-reviewed merit. There are no Haldane principles to ensure that research priorities are determined by autonomous scientific criteria. Instead, bureaucratic vetting procedures of a political character often result in resources being allocated through administrative fiat, where familiarity between the parties involved is more significant than the research merit of the project.

Huge amounts of money wasted on failed applications

Funding applications involve huge amounts of paper work. Initial applications involve 200 pages of proposals, which are subject to up to thirteen revisions before funding starts. As the research progresses, hundreds of pages of reports are required every quarter, along with detailed ‘exploitation plans’, which are apparently little better than works of fiction. The mistake at the heart of the process is the judgement that scientific research can be laid out in detail in advance — a process where deviation from the proposed programme is exposed to penalty. Moreover, the level of reporting and monitoring derives from the implementation of software projects rather than scientific research. The process distracts scientists from their research, and results in them concentrating on the programme’s misdirected reporting processes.

The process of bidding for grants that is central to Horizon 2020 results in disproportionate transaction costs, which distract and hinder European science. The League of European Research Universities’ Leru report, Interim Evaluation of Horizon 2020, resulted in oversubscription, low rates of success for applications, and institutions across Europe wasting €1.4 billion on applications that failed. Moreover, the chances of securing funding from the EU’s competitive bidding framework have fallen consistently over the last twenty years. For example, for the Framework Programme 5, which ran from 1998 to 2002, more than a quarter of applications received funding; by the 2002-06 Framework Programme 6, it fell to 18 per cent, before recovering slightly to 19 per cent between 2007 and 2013.

Thomas Estermann — the Director for Governance, Funding and Public Policy at the European University Association — has argued that these low success rates are a huge issue for European science, and that even countries with higher than average success rates, such as France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and the UK need to do real calculations to work out the true cost of funding.

The UK now needs to make this area of its public spending more efficient and better focused

The UK needs to ensure that the science funding that it pays for in future is allocated on the basis of scientific merit rather than administrative fiat. Moreover, the range of projects that are able to be researched should be widened. In a leading article following Brexit vote, Nature noted that UK participation in the EU helped to prevent the EU from completely blocking areas of research into stem cell and the genome. Yet this influence was only partial: researchers in Cambridge who are attempting to unravel the genome of wheat — which is much more complicated than a human being’s — still cannot get EU funding for that form of biological research.

The EU’s wider bias against science, technology, and innovation

In many respects, EU science has been disappointing. Huge amounts of money have been deployed, yet the return in terms of articles, patents, and new products and technologies has been weak. A central feature of Horizon 2020 has been the ambition to develop new products for market, but many of the successful research bids appear to go to projects that are remote from practical applicability. That is, in part, the result of the success of UK universities bidding — and, in effect, distorting the original objectives of the programme. Moreover, the development of new products is hindered by the EU’s bias against scientific evidence — exemplified by its ban on GM crops — and its emasculating approach to regulation. The ‘precautionary principle’ increases the costs of innovation, and delays it. In 2014, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser said that this principle had drifted from being a holding position until further evidence was provided, to, what is in practice, a blocking mechanism. The costs of developing new chemical and metallurgical products are estimated to be ten times greater, and to take three times as long, as in the US.

Last week, the Times Higher Education Supplement reported on research published in Science and Public Policy entitled European paradox delusion- are European science and economy outdated?. Analysing papers in four fields — chemistry, physics, clinical medicine, and biochemistry and molecular biology — and covering over 15,000 papers, Alonson Rodriguez-Navarro and Francis Narrin conclude that EU science is not excellent, lags far behind the US, and is falling behind China and Asia, too. They argue that too much European research is concentrated on areas of low technological progress. The result is that Europe is lagging in terms of innovation and areas of rapid technological progress.

The critical elements of a successful national scientific community are a long tradition of scientific endeavour, large strong institutions, and the resources of money and people to make further scientific progress happen. While many in the scientific community have worried about the impact of Brexit on science funding and labour mobility, the recent Conservative Party manifesto should reassure most vice-chancellors and campaigners for science. It proposed that spending on science should rise to the OECD average share of GDP of 2.4 per cent, and that there should be more scientists working in the UK. If implemented well, this should give the British science community the best of both worlds: generous funding, flexible regulation, and accessible to the world’s leading talent. This is in sharp contrast to Mr Juncker’s Commission, which has treated the EU’s research budgets as sources of funding for other economic priorities, and has attemped to divert money from science when convenient.

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