Higher Education: How to get a bigger slice of the EC pie: Well-organised administrative support for academics can help British universities to gain European Community research funding, says Elizabeth Heron

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The Independent Online
THE UK has been more successful than any other European country in securing research partnerships funded by the European Commission, according to a study of the impact of EC research and development policy on UK science and technology.

The UK has the largest number of collaborative links within EC research partnerships and is the most frequent research partner for seven other countries, including France and Germany. The study, conducted by Manchester University's Programme of Policy Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (Prest), is scheduled for publication this month.

EC research is most widely distributed here: virtually every higher education institution is involved, as well as 40 per cent of Britain's top 100 corporate investors in research and development. The proportion of university research income provided through EC contracts - about 5 per cent - is thought to be the highest in Europe.

EC funding is relatively more important to UK research, accounting for 6 per cent of government-funded civil research and development, against 4 per cent in the Community as a whole. This may still be a small share of total research funding, but the fact that Britain is the only EC country cutting its national research and development adds to the relative importance of this source.

The Commission's Framework Programme for research and development funding is planned to expand rapidly over the next few years. It proposes an increase from the current level of 5.7bn ecu ( pounds 4.46bn) to E13.1bn, and to extend the range of eligible research topics.

The programme is intended to promote 'pre-competitive research' aimed at enhancing the competitiveness of European industry as well as research aimed at improving the management of EC material and intellectual resources. Under the current four-year plan there are 16 eligible research fields, including information and communications technologies, industrial and materials technology, biotechnology, agriculture, non-nuclear energies and human capital and mobility. All research proposals must involve at least two and, more commonly, three EC countries, and in some fields must include an industrial partner that will put up 30 per cent of the funding.

But the Maastricht treaty contains provisions for the Commission to fund research that will further objectives in any of its chapters and it plans to add research towards a European transport policy and targeted socio- economic research to the list of eligible topics. The latter would include work on problems of social integration and education training, and the evaluation of science and technology policy options. However, most of the extra funding would go to existing science and technology programmes.

When it comes to securing EC contracts, it is a definite advantage for a university to have a research profile which matches the Framework Programme, as well as strong links with industry. But those qualities are by no means enough. Neither Warwick University nor Southampton, both successful research institutions with strong industrial research portfolios, have done particularly well in attracting EC contracts.

The key is well-organised administrative back-up to ensure that academics are aware of the research opportunities in their fields, negotiate the lengthy and complex application procedures, and help fill in the hefty forms. University-wide policy decisions on whether to invest in EC contract research are also needed, because an application for collaborative research involves a large amount of travel and can be costly. Anecdotal reports suggest that the cost of a first application may be about one-tenth of the return on landing a contract.

Imperial College, London - until last year, the top EC earner by far - raised its Community research income from pounds 1.8m in 1988 to pounds 4.3m in 1990 by improving administrative support to academics. This year, however, Imperial has been eclipsed by Edinburgh University, where EC research contracts leapt from pounds 1.6m to pounds 5.2m in a year. Edinburgh's European officer is backed up by a 30- strong university company.

Once a first contract has been secured, less costly contracts often flow from the research. The impact study cited 'further EC-funded research' as the most likely outcome of research projects, with 7 per cent of researchers having had a previous, related EC contract, and 57 per cent expecting to collaborate with their partners on a future EC project.

EC research is stimulating increased corporate spending on research and development (through its matched funding requirement), and contributing to the training of researchers, with 34 per cent of project staff registered for PhDs and 12 per cent going to work in industry at the end of their projects, the Prest report says. EC-funded research should also increase the research funding that universities receive from the Higher Education Funding Council, because it counts towards one of the quality criteria in the research assessment exercise.

There are some problems. Under EC rules, the Community makes a 20 per cent contribution to research overhead costs, but the British government tells universities to charge at least 40 per cent of overhead costs to a research contractor. 'The practical consequence is that everybody works 20 per cent harder,' says Josie Stein, a Prest senior research fellow.

But the Prest authors conclude that the 'most sustainable effect' of EC research 'has been to reorient the research community to a point where it regards itself as part of an emergent European scientific community'.

Eighty-four per cent of academics who took part in EC research found the costs and effort involved to be worthwhile and 93 per cent intended to reapply in the future.

'The Impact of European Community Policies for Research and Technological Development Upon Science and Technology in the United Kingdom', published by HMSO.

(Photograph omitted)

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