Action plan - the EU’s Seventh Research Framework Programme

15 September 2014

Barry Mansfield looks at the successes and shortcomings of the EU’s Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7), and lessons that can be learned for Horizon 2020.

Two years ago, as part of the overall budget for research and innovation for 2013, the European Commission unveiled a €8.1-billion package of calls for proposals under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7). This was the final and biggest ever package of FP7 calls, and represented a crucial stage in the Commission's commitment to generate growth and jobs across the continent. Calls were aimed to address key concerns where action at EU level was essential.

Raw deal

Thematic areas, such as preservation of oceans and water, better use of raw materials, efficient energy, boosting efficiency in the processing of biological resources, development of smart cities and issues like public sector reform, brain research and anti-microbial resistance, were to receive €4.8 billion of investment.

Developing Europe into a hub for world-class researchers was a priority. The European Research Council has ploughed over €1.7 billion into research, with an extra €963 million dedicated to mobility through Marie Curie Actions. Universities, research organisations and industry were among more than 15,000 funding recipients in around 1,300 projects.

"The final and biggest ever package of FP7 calls represented a crucial stage in the Commission’s commitment to generate growth and jobs."

Through this ERC funding, around 16,000 PhD students and postdocs were supported as team members. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), recognised as vital for innovation, were given special incentives with a total package of €1.2 billion. One key area of interest was improvement of biotechnological processes in industry and energy sectors, which could enable reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by up to 2.5 billion tons of CO2 a year. There was also special focus on demonstration programmes on post-disaster (natural or man-made) or "aftermath" crisis management and on logistics and supply chain security. The demo on the former was the culmination of more than 40 projects backed by the security theme over the years. By the close of FP7 in 2013 the Commission had funded more than 250 security research projects, with more than 1,500 participants from 45 nations. With over 21% participation by SMEs, the security programme surpassed the target for SME participation in the whole of FP7.

New frontiers

The dedicated SMEs programme, 'Research for the benefit of SMEs', which included demonstration actions for the FP7 research results, had €250 million earmarked for it. Around 4,000 SMEs have now benefitted from this specialised programme, which was designed to improve innovation and guide the organisation in acquiring technical expertise for the creation of products and forays into new markets. Roughly 20,000 SMEs had gained from FP7 when the programme had run its course.

The Dutch AMAZALERT initiative is a strong example of an FP7 success story. The project explores the present effectiveness of Amazon policies and is building an early warning system (EWS) to identify a range of ecosystem damage. A series of international and regional climate models were studied to compare and contrast with climate data patterns collected during the scheme. All of the models were revealed to underestimate rainfall in the region, but researchers strove to improve the systems where possible.

To put together the EWS, team members analysed all relevant land-use strategies, reports and policies in that region. A blueprint EWS is in the initial phase of development, with methods, requirements and possible applications now under close scrutiny. AMAZALERT has greatly enhanced the existing climate models for rainforest regions, and it has built or extended, climate databases for use in future projects. It is expected that additional work on the EWS will help bring about the implementation of more advanced science-based policies for land-use in coming years.

Some FP7 projects have helped universities in the new member states reinforce their research capacity and output. A good example is the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Rijeka, Croatia, and the task of the TRANSMEDRI project to raise standards in research. The single-member project was in operation for three years to June 2013, and secured €1.8 million in EU funding. The scheme recognised the loss of senior staff to more attractive positions overseas as an obstacle, and recruited four top foreign professionals.

In other words, it aimed to build research capacity and strengthen collaboration with the EU, culminating in integration with the European Research Area (ERA). The project focused on translational medicine in the areas of cancer and infectious diseases. Rather than producing scientific results, the project was intended to transform the local working context of these fields. TRANSMEDRI achieved its goals: it recruited 11 researchers, plus an administrative and financial assistant.

Respect is due

The project also received eight vital pieces of equipment relevant to its focus areas of medicine after putting out a public tender. The third goal was attained through brief visits from veteran scientists to Rijeka, and excursions abroad for training purposes by 22 young researchers.

The initiative oversaw the organisation of nine workshop events, mainly training sessions. The project also planned and hosted three conferences. TRANSMEDRI achieved its aim of making the Rijeka institution more respected regionally and internationally.

"By the close of FP7 in 2013, the Commission had funded more than 250 security research projects, with more than 1,500 participants from 45 nations."

This was achieved via the project website, presentations at international conferences and seminars, press releases, journal articles, popular science articles, and radio and television interviews. Enhanced abilities in translational medicine could help develop treatments for perinatal viral infections.

Rijeka's Dr Bojan Polic praised Dutch recruit, Dr Felix Wensveen, for his "impeccable credentials". He could have gone to "any university worldwide", but instead brought a "new approach to business, a new ethic" to Rijeka as assistant professor in the Department of Embryology.

FP7's effects even reached as far as healthcare in Africa. The EQUITABLE consortium, for example, is concerned with compiling more accurate data in order to refine health policies and access to medicine in African nations, with an emphasis on the disabled. It features members from two European and four African states with specialised expertise. EQUITABLE has worked on filling gaps in knowledge to build evidence-based policies and new practices, and to identify obstacles to implementation.

The four African nations - Namibia, Malawi, South Africa and Sudan - were the sites used to collect new qualitative and quantitative data for analysis of services for the disabled.

This data was amassed through extensive surveys and analysis of 51 policies for 12 at-risk groups with more than 32,000 people in 17 locations across the continent. As a result, researchers developed EquiFrame, a fresh policy analysis framework, and identified strengths and weaknesses in current policies in a country-specific fashion. EquiFrame co-created guidelines for Malawi's first health policy.

Another mission was to improve networking with researchers from non-European countries. National contact points (NCPs) are key to this and the Italian BIO CIRCLE 2 worked towards that goal in the context of food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology (FAFB). In operation for two years to January 2013, it involved five European partners and 16 from the rest of the world. BIO CIRCLE 2 secured EU funding of €1 million. Using this, the project worked to raise the participation of non-European researchers in FP7 FAFB projects.

BIO CIRCLE 2 achieved its goals. It strengthened the capacity of non-European NCPs with five training sessions, concentrating on skills related to FP7 issues. In addition, the project developed the capacity of foreign researchers via information days and training sessions in a suitable location. These totalled 116 events, at which partners were given the chance to exchange their thoughts and experiences with each other. European BIO NCPs organised two brokerage events, conveniently timed to coincide with two 'Knowledge Based Bio-Economy' (KBBE) calls.

So, was FP7 a success overall? Jürgen Rattenberger of the European and International Programmes Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) seems to think so. He describes FP7 as "unique" and "the biggest international funding programme there has been for cooperative research. It's the best practice model and several countries were trying to copy it, but it will take years to reach the level the Commission is already at." Nevertheless, he notes the top down system of the funding areas and emphasises that beneficiaries "had to fit their research model accordingly".

Keep it simple

Ladislav Balko, member of the European Court of Auditors (ECA), has advised the Commission on how to improve the efficiency of its management of FP7, as well as its successor, Horizon 2020, for which the Commission last year proposed an €80 billion budget. He has pushed for the administrative burden to be reduced to make programmes more attractive.

"Researchers need to be able to apply for grants based on simple rules, taking into account usual practices," he says. "The grants must be awarded faster and more consistently."

ECA's efforts have seen a number of simplifications pushed through. "The Commission has been able to align FP7 provisions with beneficiaries' cases," Balko points out, "but more needs to be done in future. Some aspects are affected by a lack of coherence. Processing times were reduced; but only down to nine months by 2012. The FP7 financial control model didn't sufficiently allow for errors. So, the researchers are subject to too many controls. In short, the Commission needs to ease the burden on less risky beneficiaries."

"Small and medium-sized enterprises, seen as vital for innovation, were given special incentives with a total package of €1.2 billion."

Gwennael Joliff Botrel, head of unit, European Commission DG Research and Innovation, wants Horizon 2020 to respond to the continuing economic crisis: "We need at least 3% of our GDP to be invested in research and innovation," she urges. "Innovation Union has 34 commitments covering IP rights, patents and licences, modernisation of EU public procurement, and action in venture capital to allow greater access of SMEs to equity funds."

Horizon 2020 is not only about research, but also demonstration and implementation, something quite new for the programme. In fact, the Commission wants it to be the most SME-friendly support programme in history. Xavier Aubrey, European Commission funding expert from Zaz Ventures, says the 2020 targets for SME funding will be a fifth of SC and LEIT budgets. "The contribution of SMEs (companies with fewer than 250 employees and turnovers smaller than €50 million, or balance sheets less than €43 million) has received more emphasis after 2011 and 2012," he adds, "but SMES must have economic activity. That could be a problem for pre-revenue startups, or those using mostly public funding to grow."

Complex problem

He refers to a 2013 survey on 600 SMEs that identified four main obstacles for applicants. Firstly, the website was difficult to navigate and the application procedures hard to understand. Secondly, the application timeline was long and negotiations were complex. Third was the issue of technology maturity. "SMEs are closer to market, so they prefer less research and more demonstration," Aubrey points out. Finally, the top-down approach with a list of topics; the SMEs had to fit into the topic line into in order to apply.

These issues have been addressed for 2020, so it should be easier to apply. The new portal is streamlined with a simple list of illustrated topics, a search engine, easily accessible core summaries, and specific challenges and scopes for each topic, with evaluation criteria. "Before, you had to go through a list of PDFs and find the information yourself, so that will be a great deal of help," says Aubrey.

Cutting out the negotiation process removes any 'backandforth' on the description of work. The negative impact is that evaluators will be forced to be stricter on applications.

As Aubrey puts it, "A shorter time to grant is good, but the application will have to be more perfect than before."

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