Research Posts: How colleges can bring home the ecus: Tighter restrictions on European funding have left academics scrambling for cash, says Mary Follain

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The Independent Online
If your collaborators are Finnish, be ready to steam your head before leaping into cold water; if they're French and take you for a drive, tighten your seat belt; if you're in Germany, gladly sample 600 types of sausage; and if you're in Britain, watch cricket in the rain and say 'wonderful'.

Advice to jet-setting salesmen? No, to today's academics, who are so desperate for European Union hand-outs to help them carry out research that they put up with far more than cultural differences. As governments and companies cut back on what they see as non-essentials, universities - particularly British ones - are becoming increasingly reliant on ecus to allow them to continue doing research.

Professor Tom Maibaum, head of computing at Imperial College London, is worried that the EU's new guidelines on international research and development collaborative projects over the next five years are going to make life much more difficult.

The guidelines place the emphasis on user needs and the end product, which makes it easier for European commissioners to show where taxpayers' money is going.

But an institution such as Imperial College concentrates on more fundamental research that may be unable to satisfy the emphasis on consumer needs and a final consumable product.

Professor Maibaum says: 'We feel we are being more and more frozen out of these programmes. It's less obvious how we can contribute to projects, and makes it much harder to carry out research.'

Monica Schofield is co-ordinating the Acro (Autonomous Cleaning Robots) project, which she knows is just what the Commission wants. 'We have a consortium of German, French and Danish manufacturers and engineers, together with Stuttgart University and the CEA (the French atomic energy authority), which is developing the robot to clean large expanses in airports and railway stations. Our end users are Comatec, a big French contract cleaning company, and British Rail.'

She says that bringing together industrialists and researchers of different nationalities requires considerable 'human skill'. But should taxpayers' money be used to produce prototypes?

William Waldegrave, when Minister of Public Service and Science, said he believed the collaborative programme should concentrate on more ambitious generic research, 'pushing out the horizons' and developing advanced technologies for companies' later use.

The EU finances 8,000 new international research and development projects every year. These range from finding a more efficient way of making fruit juice using a previously undiscovered enzyme, to the introduction of plastic parts for car engines and the improvement of safety at nuclear installations. Success rates vary, but are usually very high, and Commissioners are less willing to talk about failures.

The European Energy Directorate has financed a study of thyroid cancer in Chernobyl and had several successes in converting solar energy into electricity. It admits several technical failures but says important lessons have been learnt.

Already, EU funding is geared to favour companies, with university participation generally reduced to a minor role. The majority of participants in research programmes must be from industry, and university participation is not mandatory.

Fierce competition from other European universities and companies means that British universities' laboriously prepared project proposals are often either refused out of hand or, if accepted by the Commission, go through a long process of negotiation and drawing up of contracts before any funds are received. Once work starts, they have to submit professional reports and possibly half-hourly time-sheets.

Even so there are those like Anthony Watts - a biochemist at Oxford University who has acted as co-ordinator for several projects over the past eight years - who say the rewards are worth the paperwork and the frustrations caused by Brussels bureaucracy.

'The administrative burden of making an EU application is phenomenal, but the contact and cooperation with others, and the new scientific opportunities it opens up, are particularly valuable, especially for a UK scientist.' He thinks some programmes are far too selective, with geopolitical considerations often overriding scientific quality.

Professor Maibaum adds that delays in obtaining funding can cause serious problems. 'We're regularly in the position where our contract is months and months behind and we have to put up the money from scarce resources which we have no way of recovering if something goes wrong.'

But, like many universities, Imperial College is increasingly dependent on EU finance: 'At the moment we have something like pounds 1.2m a year of direct funding from the EU for projects just in this department. Perhaps pounds 4m or pounds 5m a year for the college as a whole. The down side is that companies are getting our services free through involvement in the projects, so we have fewer consultation or direct research contracts.'

Dissuaded by the market orientation, the bureaucracy, and the difficulty of dealing with large industrially led projects, Imperial College has abandoned them in favour of an increasingly popular basic research programme which is reserved for academics - despite the one-in-10 success rate for proposals.

Independent studies have shown that British companies are doing very well out of the collaborative projects, but Professor Maibaum warns that in 10 years or so they will find they no longer have the technology they need to manufacture new products.

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