The European Commission needs to do much more to make its Framework Programmes accessible to researchers. Credit: Alamy

The bureaucratic and sluggish process of applying for and winning funding from the European Union's Framework Programme for research is a "stain" on its reputation and a significant barrier to participation, an expert report has warned.

The European Commission's attempts to simplify the application and participation process for the programme are "timid and incremental", the report says. It calls for a "radical overhaul" of the administration, saying this should be given the "highest political priority" if the current and future programmes are to be successful.

The report evaluates the Sixth Framework Programme, in which nearly €18 billion (US$23 billion) was up for grabs between 2002–06, and was presented at a conference on assessing the impact of research, held in Prague in the Czech Republic last week. It was conducted by an independent group of academics from across Europe and the United States, on behalf on the European Commission.

The report comes as the Commission gears up to publish a progress report at the end of April on the current €50.5-billion Seventh Framework Programme, which runs from 2007–13.

Hard to ignore

Peter Fisch, head of programme evaluation and monitoring in the Commission's research directorate, told the conference that it is "hard to ignore the very serious criticisms" in the report. He says the Commission will officially respond to the report in the next few weeks, but adds that a flurry of simplification measures were introduced in the current programme — including, for example, the creation of an online database of applicants' details to make it easier for those applying for money several times.

Fisch says that the report's recommendations will have an influence on the Eighth Framework Programme, which will start to take shape in 2010.

Ernst Rietschel, chairman of the report and president of the Leibniz Association of German Research Institutes, Berlin, says the simplification measures introduced in the Seventh Framework Programme do not go far enough.

The report proposes moving towards a trust-based system in which a price is agreed for a project, and the researchers are then left to get on with their work. The report says such a system would remove the need for the "fussy bureaucracy" of the existing system, in which the cost of the research is audited as the project progresses.

The whole system needs changing. Ernst Rietschel , Leibniz Association

"The whole system needs changing," Rietschel says. "It needs to move away from such strict controls on the money, and allow researchers more freedom to handle the funding."

It is "unacceptable" that 75% of research contracts in the Sixth Framework Programme took around 450 days to be signed and completed by the Commission, says Rietschel. This comes "very close" to international worst practice, the report says. It recommends the Commission cuts this time by half. It is also "unreasonable" that the Commission takes 60 days to deliver funding from the date of approval, it adds.

"Research is dynamic. Such long lead times on the start of projects do not work for research activities," says Rietschel.

Big problems for small firms

The programme's administrative flaws are cited among the major factors that dissuade public and private researchers from participating, the report says.

It expresses concern that in the Sixth Framework Programme, business participation fell by around 4% compared with the Fifth Framework Programme, which ran from 1998–2002. This is a "very worrying" indication that the programmes may not live up to their overall goal of bringing research results to market and stimulating European competitiveness, the report says.

Anna Maria Heidenreich, an expert in innovation and technology policy for the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Brussels, told Nature News she agrees with the report's findings.

"The [Framework Programme] has a very bad image and this puts industry off even trying to apply," she says.

Heidenreich would like to see the Commission make it easier for small hi-tech businesses to participate in the mainstream projects of future research programmes. Currently, the Framework programme has separate projects for small businesses and, although they are not excluded from larger mainstream projects, the procedures for getting involved are often too complex and time-consuming for them to take part, she says.

Jan–Eric Sundgren, chairman of the research working group for BUSINESSEUROPE, a Brussels-based group that represents businesses in the European Union, agrees that the complexity of the programmes inhibit small businesses from taking part. But Sundgren, who is also vice-president of public and environmental affairs at the Swedish-based Volvo Group of companies, says large multinational companies find it easier to get involved. He says the Volvo group's participation in the current programme to date is at roughly the same level as in the Sixth Framework Programme.

The report also recommends that that the Seventh Framework Programme's flagship €7.5-billion European Research Council (ERC), which awards individual grants for 'blue-skies' research, should become completely independent from the Commission. Management of the ERC's funding activities is currently governed by an executive agency that is semi-autonomous from the Commission. The results of a review of the ERC, including whether it should become completely independent, are due to be released in July this year.