Published online 15 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1006

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EU research programme weighed up and found wanting

Audit criticizes lack of sustainability of EU-funded projects.

eu flagAuditors have criticized the EU's Sixth Framework Programme.

The European Union's last research programme, worth €17.5 billion (US$23 billion), failed to meet some of its main goals, a new report finds.

During the lifetime of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6), which ran from 2002-2006, ten countries joined the EU, enlarging the block from 15 to 25 members. One of the programme's main objectives was to counter the fragmentation of European research by creating large multinational research and technology collaborations, including industrial partners, in fields considered to be most relevant to society.

But the report published yesterday by the European Court of Auditors, a group that reviews EU finances, concludes that this goal was poorly achieved. The auditors say that most research partnerships, which require cumbersome contract negotiations to bring together, disintegrate as soon as EU funding runs out — and do not secure further funding from other sources as was hoped. And mainly as a result of the red tape involved, the participation of small businesses in the networks stayed 5% short of the envisaged 15% target.

"Only a minority of networks moved towards self-sustainable integration of the partners' research capacities after the ending of [European] Community funding," says Massimo Vari, a member of the Court. "Integrated projects failed to realize the expected leverage of additional public and private funding."

The average funding for each of the 167 'Networks of Excellence' and almost 700 'Integrated Projects' — the two types of large research collaborations which together accounted for almost half of the overall FP6 budget — were, respectively, €7 million and €9.5 million.

But the auditors, who visited 36 project coordinators and held roundtable discussions with 44 organizations that had participated in FP6, say that EU-funding failed to stimulate much additional research expenditure by private businesses. As a result, the programme contributed little to the EU's 'Lisbon target' of raising total research expenditure in the region to 3% of gross domestic product by 2010.

Reasonable quality

The report acknowledges that FP6 was successful in promoting research of "reasonable quality". An accompanying survey of research organizations and individual scientists shows that participants in the networks were satisfied with the outcome of their work.

But the auditors say that the European Commission must in future outline clearer and more realistic objectives before setting up multimillion-euro research networks. They also recommend the commission develops an explicit "intervention logic" in case networks fail to deliver.

The report also recommends the commission should make the evaluation and management of projects easier, ensure better guidance and speed up the contract process.

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The criticism widely reflects shortcomings of FP6, highlighted in March by an independent expert review that called for a radical overhaul of EU research funding (see 'Red tape blights European Union research programme').

In its response, the commission concedes that some networks have been "less successful than others", but rejects the auditors' sweeping criticism of poor project management and monitoring. Some of the most promising networks from FP6 could receive funding in the current Seventh Framework Programme to allow them to continue their work, the Commission adds. But each network would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Research goals and research policy objectives are clearly defined in the current programme, the commission says. But balancing the desire for speedy disbursement of funds with the need for accountability will remain a challenge, it says. 

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