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The games begin

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Frustrations of the newest European member states will shape debate over research funding.

With some €80 billion (US$105 billion) to distribute, the next European research funding programme will have one of the world's most generous science budgets. The European Commission has promised radical change to the programme, called Horizon 2020, and researchers, politicians and commentators have been waiting to see the results. This week, Nature reveals the programme's new look.

A leaked draft of the commission's plans for Horizon 2020, discussed on page 16, reveals the commission's admirable and much-needed attempt to make applying for funding and participating in the programme a lot easier for researchers.

It is true that the commission has attempted to streamline past programmes, notably the current Seventh Framework Programme, which runs until 2013. But wider and deeper change is needed — particularly, as the commission now suggests, to harmonize the criteria for evaluating research proposals and judging what counts as eligible research costs across the different sections of the programme. This means that researchers will need to learn only one set of rules, whether they apply for funding for collaborative research projects that tackle key societal challenges such as energy efficiency, or for grants from, for example, the Budapest-based European Institute of Innovation and Technology.

“Nature applauds the commission's hard-fought efforts to prioritize excellence as a key funding criterion.”

The proposals also suggest the provision of better guidance for researchers who must fill out time sheets to satisfy the commission's demand for financial accountability once research projects are complete. Significantly, the plans abolish time recording for researchers who work full-time on one project, such as those with grants from the European Research Council, which funds frontier research across Europe. This comes as a welcome move, as there is little point in having all that money available if the rules of play are so complicated and time-consuming that they discourage researchers from applying. The cream of Europe's science crop have, in the past, turned their backs on the funding programme to compete for other, less-bureaucratic funding streams, threatening to push the Framework programme towards mediocrity.

There is no guarantee that the revisions go far enough to halt this trend. And as the finer details of the programme are hammered out, including developing the annual calls for proposals, the commission should allow researchers more freedom to draw up research proposals, rather than continuing to prescribe the precise projects that it wants to fund. It is scientists, not Brussels bureaucrats, who are best placed to know what is new and interesting.

Missing from the leaked proposals is a clear solution to the tension building among the 12 newest European member states — known as the EU 12, including Poland and Romania — which feel excluded by the drive to fund excellent science. With weaker national science and technology systems, researchers in these countries often lose out to their counterparts in the scientifically stronger nations, who are able to write better grant proposals. Researchers in the EU 12 complain that young research talent is not being given the support or the opportunity to show its potential. They are not alone in their concerns over the uneven geographical distribution of the programme's funds. Members of the European Parliament's industry, research and energy committee said in a report on 31 August that they find it unacceptable that the lion's share of research funds goes to the richer member states.

Traditionally, the commission allocates support for national capacity-building through a separate funding stream available in the European Union's budget, called structural funds. The commission encourages their use for research purposes in the newer member states. But it has had mixed results, in part because governments prefer to use the funds for improvements that their voters can see and use, such as new roads. It is not enough for the commission to claim that structural funds can help to put newer member states on the path towards excellent science, as it does in the Horizon 2020 draft. Rather, it must propose concrete initiatives and reforms that encourage those governments to use these funds for research. A key starting point could be to cut the red tape around the use of structural funds, which is even more difficult to navigate than the research Framework programme.

Nature applauds the commission's hard-fought efforts to prioritize excellence as a key funding criterion — specifically, its plan to devote one-third of the programme to excellent research. This focus will be ever more important if Europe is to compete on the global research stage. Nevertheless, the frustrations of the EU 12 countries need to be addressed, not least because they, along with members of the European Parliament, could delay agreement on the programme plans. This issue is likely to dominate much of the debate on the shape of European funding over the next 18 months. So, let the games begin.

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The games begin. Nature 478, 5–6 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/478005b

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