20 Feb 2016

Acquiring funding becomes an increasingly difficult balancing act

Acquiring funding becomes increasingly complex as various policies and goals have to be taken into account. Foremost, the policies of the funder are decisive. This does not only include identifying calls but also understanding their policy background. In the case of the EU, the Horizon2020 programme consists of strings of related calls. Most of the calls link to previous and future ones. As one call may get a follow-up in later calls, the latter need to integrate earlier project results. Compared to previous funding programmes like FP7, writing a project proposal needs a better insight into earlier calls and related policy documents. The EC has distinct views on what is aimed at in the calls, and to ensure that this is understood attending the brokerage events organized is imperative.

     For most calls a consortium of partners is formed, and all of the partners have their own project history, strengths and policies for future development. Aligning these with the call and the EC policies is quite a puzzle. Finding partners calls for networking, for example, through the regular scientific conferences. Nowadays, networking requires broader networks as most of the EU and national innovation funding concerns multi-disciplinary research requiring collaboration of scholars from different fields.

     Most of the calls do not just ask for validation of result, but emphasize higher degrees of implementation such as industrial uptake. As a consequence of this, it is no longer enough to include end-users that can verify if a solution or product developed is suitable for practice, but the project should demonstrate that it adds employment through creating business and innovation. There is far less space for public merits, such as clever and cheap solutions for public use. Most of the security calls, for example, now include developing technology that can be marketed. If one would like to serve the public good as well as provide commercial value, this takes an even more complicated balancing act of combining goals.

     On top of this, there are various networks that also align their activities in order to increase their chances of getting funding. Big is assumed to be beautiful. Next to academic institutions also many private businesses currently have specialized personnel that monitors funding opportunities. Many kinds of organizations and networks have geared their activities towards the funding instruments. The funding is structurizing knowledge development, and the space to deviate from this is getting small. 

     A research group needs the weight of the organization as a whole to get proper support by Research and Innovation specialists, and this constitutes a chain up to the funder, including also the national contact points of EU research funding. In addition, a whole market of companies providing advice, training and project coordination has been created, all geared towards EU funding. This gradually has changed the nature of the game, and begins to show next to chances also negative features.

     International and national funders arrange preparation meetings and participative processes in which topics are developed and network collaboration initiated. Placing topics on the research agenda has become a long term process, involving intricate networking along the lines created by the funder, but also along regional lines. Many cities and regions have created innovation networks called triple helix because they combine public and private organizations next to academic institutes, and sometimes also civil society input. The latter intends to improve collaboration and higher quality of innovation by the different partners. However, it is obvious that all these networks also create a lot of overhead and bureaucracy.

     For research coordinators, such as professors, it becomes increasingly difficult to connect the large scale networking to the needs of their research group. They need to apply for a portfolio of calls to combine some high risk and gain options with safe and solid funding sources. They need to lobby through different discipline, region, national and international networks. And they need to ensure that their funding portfolio provides the policy and commercial interests of the funders, next to delivering the academic output for their performance as a scholar. Finally, they also need to arrange for the funding of doctoral students and postdocs that individually need a suitable combination of projects to get to the next stage in their career. For example, many EU projects have a duration of three years, whereas a doctoral student needs four years to finish a portfolio of publications. Matching all these different interests is exciting but also very challenging.

     Horizon2020 is very different than the previous funding programme FP7. The EC marketed the programme enormously and the number of proposals has risen accordingly. For individual applicants the chances of getting funding have dropped dramatically. Although this EU programme comprised a larger budget, at the same time many countries lowered their budget for national funding. Because there are so many proposals, also many new reviewers were recruited with less experience than the initial group, and often lack own experience as partner or coordinator. Universities note that winning budget needs better support, and much attention structurally. End users cannot just be users with good knowledge of the field anymore, but are increasingly replaced by an international group of users helpful for taking the product into use and creating employment impact.  For country comparisons in Horizon2020 see also: www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20151029192346710  and for Fins only:  www.tekes.eu/globalassets/tekeseu/nyt/tilastot/h2020-suomi-10022016.pdf

     Funding has created its own intensive circus. We need to reflect on the positive and negative consequences of the increase of scale initiated by changes in the structure of research funding.