European Research Administration Will Get Easier and Harder

From ScienceInsider we have this report of remarks made by the European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner about proposed changes to how researchers will apply for and administer grants from the European Commission.  While I don’t have the text of her remarks, the official Communication is available online.

It’s a much broader strategy than the standardized form introduced by the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy (probably unnecessary in this case as research funding in Europe appears more centralized).  Some of the steps involve using information technology more, a more consistent application of relevant rules, modifying financial reporting and accounting rules, and adjusting the timetables for various kinds of proposals as appropriate.

A phrase the ScienceInsider piece picked up on deals with what the Commissioner called “payment by output” for scientific research.  If you had an involuntary nervous response hearing that phrase, I sympathize.  While I disagreed strongly with those who opposed the impact requirements for the U.K. Research Excellence Framework, this “payment by output” is a whole different thing.  From the Commissioner’s remarks (according to ScienceInsider).

“The Court of Auditors itself has asked whether instead of the current system of “payment by input”, we could move towards “payment by output”. Agreed objectives would be set in return for funding.”

The press release refers to “payment by results”

“Among the options presented is a move towards “payment by results”, which would mean that beneficiaries were paid lump sums to undertake specific scientific tasks and would need to demonstrate that they have done so effectively and efficiently, rather than to report individual cost items.”

Reading the Communication – which talks about “result-based funding” – it seems that the envisioned change is mainly financial – that research proposals would be reimbursed based on meeting objectives rather than incurred costs.  Not that this distinction washes away concerns over overtly directed research, but it is possible that the objectives could be defined in such a way as to allow for fundamental research (“will be paid upon completion of a clinical trial” rather than “will be paid for 3 years of salary and facilities costs for 3 P.I.s and 7 graduate students”).

However, if the reaction of U.K. researchers to the inclusion of impact statements is any indication, European researchers will likely react badly.  There does need to be a better messaging strategy to work through this.  Emphasizing the lump-sum payment models outlined in the Communication is a great first step.  Never say “payment by output” by itself.  Go a bit further, describe some hypothetical proposal requests or distribute a hypothetical award statement under these models.  Give researchers the details from the start.  Since transparency is an emphasis of this new direction from the Commission, being as up front as possible about something as open to interpretation as “payment by output” is good policy and good politics.

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