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Commission offers 2020 vision of less red tape and a lot more cash

Plaudits for Framework Programme's simplified and increased funding provision. Paul Jump reports

Commentators have welcomed many of the European Commission's proposals for its research and innovation budget beyond 2014.

The proposals, released last week, call for a 60 per cent increase in the Commission's research and innovation budget for the next Framework Programme - known as Horizon 2020 - to €80 billion (£68.8 billion).

This would include increases of 77 per cent for the European Research Council, which funds "frontier" research, and 21 per cent for the Marie Curie mobility programmes.

The application process will also be simplified, and "unnecessary controls and audits" abolished.

John Smith, deputy secretary-general of the European University Association, welcomed the moves towards a "trust-based" monitoring regime, but said the devil would be in the detail. He also strongly disagreed with the proposal to apply universally the funding mechanism currently used by the ERC, which reimburses 100 per cent of applicants' direct costs and 20 per cent of their indirect costs.

Other funding streams currently reimburse 75 per cent of direct costs but permit universities certified as having adopted full-cost accounting to reclaim all their indirect costs - which are often substantial.

But a statement from the League of European Research Universities says the full reimbursement of direct costs would make principal investigators' lives easier and facilitate "the financial sustainability of university participation in Horizon 2020" by allowing institutions to recruit staff specifically to work on European projects.

Peter Tindemans, a policy expert at science-advocacy body Euroscience, believed the Commission was serious about reducing bureaucracy but said it could have gone further.

His understanding was that the Commission currently took around a year to release funding once it had been awarded, which meant that its commitment to reducing that by 100 days still left 265 days, which was "far too long".

He also "deplored" the lack of provision for investment in large infrastructure, on which Europe was "lagging behind" countries such as the US.

Other major elements of the Commission's proposals include nearly €18 billion for "securing industrial leadership", such as developing advanced materials, and €32 billion to address six "societal challenges" in topics including health, food security, clean energy, climate change and "smart" transport.

Dr Smith welcomed the adoption of a challenge in "inclusive, innovative and secure societies", which had been drawn up with humanities and social science researchers in mind. But he warned it must not become a "silo" to which they were confined.

He also said that universities' role "in relation to basic science and training" should not be forgotten in the context of societal challenges: "We don't want a situation where basic science is only funded by the ERC."

But Dr Tindeman said he had not sensed an "undercurrent" that "more money, relatively speaking, should go to businesses".

He thought the proposals stood a "fair chance" of being approved by the European Council and European Parliament without major trimming, since politicians recognised that investment in research could boost growth and employment.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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