May 24, 2011
This is my third and final wish for the Eighth Framework Programme (FP8) planning process. This wish, more difficult for Commission PO’s, is that there be greater flexibility in the project management.
Imagine two people standing in front of a cave. The first person was interested to go in and see what was in the cave, what might be of value and where any new passage might lead. The other wanted to go in the cave to prove the theory that a series of left turns would lead them safely out of the other side of the cave. Which of these two people is the researcher, and which is the project manager? Which will more likely get FP funding?
The EU Research Framework Programmes often tend to be more about project management than research. The evaluation process requires that clear objectives are put forward – what the research should result in – and how the impacts of these expected outcomes will be developed. This is very good project management, but that is not really how the research endeavour works, and projects are often seen to have failed when the anticipated outcomes were not realised.
Research is more about discovery, testing out theories and following up results, anticipated or not. Many of the best discoveries are accidental, and good research should be free to follow leads wherever they may go (what I have referred to as chasing butterflies). Planning where you are going to go and what outcomes you expect to attain, years before the research begins, in order to satisfy an evaluation and work programme process implies very limited goals and research ambitions. I don’t believe that FP funding should mainly be about training scientists in effective project management.
This does not mean that we should give researchers butterfly nets and see what they can come up with. My wish is that there should be more flexibility in the project management. If research produces something very interesting but outside of the scope of the proposal, or the anticipated outcomes do not materialise, there should be some flexibility in how the project should proceed. Perhaps if discovery guides a consortium down different avenues, other partners can be brought in. This puts greater pressure on the Commission Project Officer (PO), to a certain extent, to more closely follow the evolution of the projects (to be more of a gourmet chef than a delivery boy) and guide the consortium to ensure that the research develops to the greatest potential. If the project hits a deadend, decisions should be made on where to turn. If a project still has twelve months to run, the PO should have more freedom to consider options (including abandoning the project or having the consortium follow different paths). This would imply more PO’s to manage fewer projects, but hopefully with greater positive results.
Proposals should also be required to give more detailed risk management options, ie, should the proposed outcomes not be realised, the plan B or plan C for the project would be … Butterflies are beautiful, and much nicer than slugs. Too often in the ex-post evaluation process (events that occur often more than ten years after the project and two FP’s later), these slug projects are frequently seen as slow-moving consequences of rigid designs on ambitious objectives. These failed projects prove to be a waste of scientists’ expertise, time and good will, that can leave negative sentiments on the perception of the EU Framework Programme in general. It can also prove to be a waste of public money.
So as we stand in front of the FP8 cave, should we enter with the hope of proving that a series of left turns will get us safely through, or should we enter the cave to see what we can discover, what there is of value and where we should then proceed? I hope before the genie is out of the bottle on these three wishes, that there would be some public debate on where EU funded research should be going over the coming years. Transparency in research funding is as important as transparency in research. And with that, I’ll crawl back into my cave!