Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker (left) and European research commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn have helped to reshape the Framework research funding programme. Credit: P. Grimm/Picture Alliance/Photoshot; T. Roge/Reuters

It is not the revolution that some researchers hoped for. But Nature has learned that the next iteration of the European Union's multibillion-euro research programme includes modest yet significant reforms that could make the vast pot of funds easier for researchers to tap.

The European Commission acknowledges that burdensome administration, including a plethora of time sheets, financial audits and complicated rules, has discouraged some researchers from taking part in its €50.5-billion (US$67.3-billion) Seventh Framework Programme, known as FP7. Plans for the next cycle of funding in 2014–20, called Horizon 2020, are not due for publication until late November, and although the commission has requested €80 billion for the programme, a budget has not yet been agreed. But Nature 's early look at the plans reveals that Horizon 2020 will come with significantly less red tape.

The plans say that researchers will have to navigate only one set of rules for all initiatives in the programme, including collaborative research projects and those that fall under the auspices of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, headquartered in Budapest. The rules will cover how proposals are evaluated, the criteria used to award funding and what indirect costs can be claimed for projects. Some variation in the rules will be allowed for issues such as the exploitation of research results and intellectual-property rights, in order to help innovation flourish — one of the key goals of Europe's commissioner for research, innovation and science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn. "A common set of basic principles" across all the initiatives would lead to "considerable trimming and lightening of rules", the commission's proposals say.

"Any move to simplify the application and management of grants is to be welcomed," says Adam Hurlstone, a cancer researcher at the University of Manchester, UK. Hurlstone this year won a grant from the European Research Council (ERC), the pan-European initiative to fund frontier research solely on the basis of excellence, which has been lauded by researchers for its relatively simple application process. He says that he has previously been put off from applying for grants from other initiatives in the framework programme "due to my perception of the organizing and administrative burden".

Any move to simplify the application and management of grants is to be welcomed. ,

The plans also say that the framework programme will be reorganized to group all 'excellence' initiatives together under one administrative umbrella. This will include the ERC grants and the popular Marie Curie fellowships, which fund researchers to move from one EU country to another to work on a project. Unlike previous programmes, a portion of Horizon 2020 funding will be targeted towards six key challenges affecting society, including health, food security and clean energy.

Researchers should also find it easier to claim back the indirect costs of research projects, such as the provision of laboratory space and maintenance of equipment. The commission will sweep away the various ways of calculating indirect costs; instead, it proposes using a single rate for participants from institutions without commission-approved accounting systems. The move should help to avoid "frequent errors" in accounting, the commission says.

But the commission has decided not to eliminate the requirement for researchers to report in detail their research costs, meaning that they will still have to fill out time sheets and undergo financial auditing when projects are completed. It rejected an option in which researchers would be awarded all of their funding in a lump sum based on agreed research outputs. Instead, it settled for providing clearer advice to researchers filling in time sheets, and abolished time recording for researchers who work full time on a project, such as those with ERC grants.

The planning document says that more radical reforms would have required "major organisation changes in the commission", including building up new skills and reassigning staff to different roles. "I would like to have seen a more radical approach," says a senior European science adviser, who requested anonymity. "It is clear the commission is concerned for its own jobs rather than solving the problems that exist."

The Horizon 2020 proposals also rejected calls to give the ERC more independence and reduce the administrative burden imposed by the commission (see Nature;2010). Instead, the ERC will remain partially under the administrative control of the commission, as recommended in July by a task force including Helga Nowotny, the ERC president, and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, former secretary-general of the ERC. "In the past I would have recommended radical change, but we came to the conclusion that it would be too difficult and could threaten the ERC," says Winnacker.

The plans show that the commission is moving forward with other reforms suggested by the task force. These include replacing the commission's stifling daily supervision of the ERC with regular, but less frequent, meetings between the ERC's scientific leadership and a commission representative.

The commission will now refine the proposals and assign budgets before they are officially published. Discussions between the commission, member states and the European Parliament will take about 18 months. They hope to agree on a final version in time for the programme to begin in 2014.