Europe’s researchers benefit from reduced bureaucracy

The European Union’s main research-funding programme has successfully cut down on red tape for grant applicants — but there is room for improvement.

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The European Union has made good on its promise to reduce the amount of red tape that scientists must wade through when applying for grants from its flagship funding programme, according to a report released on 6 November by the European Court of Auditors (ECA).

The EU’s framework programmes — worth tens of billions of euros — are an important source of European research funding, but many scientists have been frustrated with the bureaucracy involved in applying for and managing grants.

The European Commission sought to streamline these processes in the latest iteration of the programme, Horizon 2020, which is worth €76.4 billion and lasts from 2014 to 2020.

Measures have included centralizing support services, improving information-technology tools and developing a single rulebook for participation.

Steady progress

In its report, the ECA found that these changes reduced the administrative burden placed on scientists. The time between applying for and receiving a grant has decreased, for example, and researchers generally say they are satisfied with the improved support tools.

“The process of obtaining a grant is now made more accessible for a larger population of researchers,” said ECA member Alex Brenninkmeijer, who led the audit, in a press release.

But the ECA also notes several places where the Commission could make further improvements. In some cases it suggests increasing the use of two-stage evaluations, in which applicants initially send a short proposal for evaluation rather than spending time and effort on a full proposal.

The report also finds that the Commission could do more to help researchers who submitted high-quality, but unsuccessful, applications to obtain funding from other sources.

The audit provides formal recognition of improvements already acknowledged by scientists. In an interview with Nature in February, Robert-Jan Smits, then director-general of research for the EU, said that of all his achievements, reducing bureaucracy ranked among those researchers were most happy about.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07344-7

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