Writing and managing EU-funded projects can turn into a painful experience. Why EU research needs professional support.
By Marco Liviantoni EU Senior Expert at EFMC – European Fund Management Consulting
In almost 2 decades of experience in EU affairs, one of the things I learned is that writing a project proposal for EU funding can turn into a very painful experience for the person who took the lead in the design and editing. Irrespective of the experience in preparing and submitting proposals, this is a risk and a possible outcome for any EU funds applicant.
Conceiving, drawing, and submitting a proposal for EU grants should represent one of the most exciting experiences for a researcher, a scientist, an educator, or for anyone with a piece of valuable knowledge in his/her field of knowledge.
In particular, with EU funds – where the proposal success depends on the high quality of contents, on the long-term vision, on the expected impact of valuable knowledge for the society, for the economy, and for the environment – submitting a proposal should represent the highest expression of the applicant projection in the world. You have the opportunity to make many aspects converging: years of commitment, study, and research, converging toward a work plan for your future, and for the well-being of the next generations.
At the very moment when you decide to face the race for the grant, your interest is normally not the grant per se. Ok, money is a motivating aspect indeed, but primarily you see the grant as an opportunity for you and your team (and/or organization), to book a seat in the history of progress.
After some months from the “go” decision, one day you realize that this excitement almost vanished. You do not see clearly the opportunities anymore, you mostly see threats. The less and less you believe you can succeed in getting the grant, and in changing the world too. You start thinking this effort is not worth it anymore.
SO, WHAT HAPPENED IN THE MEANWHILE?
The reason sits in the way EU programs are conceived by the Granting Authorities (by the European Commission, ed.). EU programs are designed by, and for, the European Union. Despite the prominent role formally assigned to the “beneficiaries”, sadly the reality is that “beneficiaries” represent a stakeholder. Which is something not necessarily bad. Yet, you are a gear of a larger mechanism that involves Member States and lobbies, designed to be a servant for a political vision. Regulations, programs, calls for proposals, models of the grant agreement, interpretation of the rules, are all elements conceived to make the machine moving as smoothly as possible. A number of upstream principles forge this mechanism, e.g. the Member States sovereignty, and the delegation of original competencies and resources to the European Union. So far, so good, as we are truly pro-Europe.
The pain point is that this mechanism is sometimes blind to the real needs of the Research and Innovation community. Few examples may clarify this.
Collaborative projects are encouraged to be:
- large temporary organizations (“consortia”)
- with ambitious goals (“global impacts”),
- composed of organizations representing several different MS and Associated countries (trans-nationality)
- very inter-disciplinary (“interdisciplinary approach”)
- with significant attention to ethical principles (“ethics” and “security” issues)
- cautious not to harm the environment (“DNSH principle”)
- open as much as possible to the dissemination of results (“Open Access” and “Research Data Management”)
- business-oriented, in order to turn patents into products/services (“exploitability”)
- ensuring gender balance (“gender issues”)
- and project expenditure compliant with very complex financial regulations (costs eligibility).
At the same time, they have to:
- show dramatic impact on the society and economy for the wellbeing of EU taxpayers, industry and the planet Earth (“impact”)
- helping to re-shape the European and global governance (supporting the role of politics and decision-makers, inspiring new policies and governance).
Such ambitious goals – that apparently would require solid governance and professional management of the project implementation – should supposedly be achieved without any support from professionals of the project management (coordination & management is a project activity that cannot be subcontracted, ed.). Therefore, either the applicant internalizes specific tremendous project management competence (eventually in the person of the leading researchers that should also operate as a coordinator), or it has to get ready to experience concrete risks of a poorly managed project.
- I believe that is time for the EU donor to move a step forward, granting dignity and relevance to professional EU-funded actions Project Management. Giving the responsibility of project coordination & management to a professional organization (as a beneficiary, or a subcontractor) is neither cheating on the technical capacity of Coordinators, nor hacking the system introducing non-research related actors into the funding mechanism. Contrarily, it is about ensuring the application of a simple and transparent principle: subsidiarity. A research institution does not necessarily need to be also a professional project coordinator. The research owner has to be an excellent researcher. A Coordinator has to be an excellent project manager.
In other words, it is time to make “project coordination” a project activity that can be externalized, either subcontracted or taken over by a professional project management entity under a different funding scheme (e.g. top-up lump sum funding). A specific role in the consortium should be foreseen.
For example, each project consortium might have:
- a Project Owner, i.e. the legal entity leading the scientific and technical implementation of the project, and main owner of project results;
- a Coordinator, a legal entity whose mission is providing professional project management to the consortium;
- and partners, contributors, affiliated entities, associated partners, contributing to the technical implementation of the action.
Simple as this. One single move to make EU projects more impactful, well-managed…and bullet-proof to costs rejections and grant reductions. This is typically called INNOVATION.