FP7 making 'significant contribution' to European science, experts say

(Nanowerk News) 'FP7 is on course and is clearly making a significant contribution to European science and the development of the European Research Area.' This is one of the key messages to emerge from the newly-published interim evaluation (pdf) of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).
The report, drawn up by a panel of 10 independent experts who spent 6 months analysing FP7, highlights the programme's many successes. Among other things, the experts praise FP7's breadth and scope, citing in particular the impressive numbers of researchers involved, the geographical spread of teams and the range of topics covered.
The group also welcomes the fact that 'the principle of excellence in project selection is largely achieved'. In the Cooperation Programme, the quality of proposals is generally high and top researchers are receiving funding. The European Research Council (ERC) has also succeeded in attracting talented scientists to Europe. The Marie Curie schemes are also praised for their contribution to researcher mobility and training.
Finally, there is evidence that the EU's research programmes, and FP7 in particular, are having a positive 'leverage' effect in promoting research efforts at national level and in industry.
Despite these successes, however, the experts find considerable room for improvement and set out 10 recommendations to guide the European Commission as it embarks on the second half of FP7 and lays the groundwork for the Eighth Framework Programme (FP8), which is due to start in 2014.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the recommendations concerns simplification. The experts acknowledge that there have been some improvements under FP7. Nevertheless, many procedures continue to be 'unwieldy or disproportionate to the very marginal benefits they provide in terms of control of public spending,' the experts write. Small businesses in particular are put off participating in FP7 due to the complexity of the procedures and the delays in contracts.
The experts call for a 'quantum leap' in simplification, and recommend that the European Commission implement the simplification measures set out in a recent Communication on the subject. The group also implores the European Commission to adopt a more trust-based and risk-tolerant approach to the issue.
On the financial front, the experts state that the level of funding should be maintained at the very least. They point out that investing in research is essential if the EU is to achieve the Europe 2020 goals of turning Europe into a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy.
Further steps are also needed to overcome fragmentation in research, particularly in areas where cross-border cooperation is essential for success. In addition, the 'Grand Challenges' should increasingly be at the heart of EU research policy, starting with the second part of FP7 and continuing into FP8, the experts recommend.
The experts also call for more open calls in the Cooperation Programme for the remainder of FP7. However, they also suggest that to avoid confusion, there should be a moratorium on the introduction of new instruments until the existing ones have been properly evaluated.
Some recommendations concern groups that are currently under-represented in FP7. Women remain in the minority in the research community, and the experts write that the European Commission should 'reinvigorate its approach to promoting female scientists' and 'galvanise Member States to address gender gaps'.
Researchers in countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 as well as some other Member States are less successful at obtaining FP7 funding than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. Boosting connections between the research framework programmes and the EU's structural funds could help here, as could the research infrastructures budget line and the People Programme, which aims to develop researchers' potential.
A 'well-articulated innovation strategy' would bolster participation from a broad spectrum of small and large business, and universities and research and technology organisations, according to the experts.
Elsewhere, the experts underline the need to develop and implement high-quality research infrastructures in Europe, as well as the importance of exploring new ways of opening FP7 up to international cooperation.
Looking to the future, the experts note that issues that need to be addressed in FP8 include international cooperation, coordination of EU and Member State policies, excellence, competitiveness and, of course, simplification.
'[FP8] has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for societal change and economic renewal in Europe and, if structured and funded appropriately, will be strategic in realising the Europe 2020 objectives,' the experts conclude.
The European Commission is now studying the report and is expected to issue a response in the coming weeks. The findings of the report will also feed into discussions on the shape of FP8.
'We welcome the report from the Expert Group which concludes that the Framework Programme is backing excellent projects and has a vast and impressive reach,' commented European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, M?ire Geoghegan-Quinn.
'We will take the Expert Group's recommendations fully into account in bringing forward early next year our proposals for the implementation of the remainder of our current Seventh Research Framework Programme and subsequently for the successor Eighth Framework Programme. I am determined to make continuous improvements in our support for research and innovation.'
Source: Cordis