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Universities concerned about EU rollout of lump-sum funding

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Groups warn of “unintended consequences” of more widespread lump-sum use

Universities and other research organisations have urged EU policymakers not to be premature with the broader rollout of “lump-sum” R&D funding, despite a positive analysis of a recent pilot.

Last month, the European Commission revealed that it was considering a “massive extension” of the lump-sum funding model in the EU R&D programme Horizon Europe, as a way of reducing the burden on administrators and the error rate in participants’ reporting.

Under the lump-sum model, researchers submit overarching cost estimates before their project starts, rather than invoicing for costs such as staff pay and travel after they have been incurred and then being subject to an audit. They then only have to achieve pre-set milestones for their project activities, although the initial planning burden may be greater.

Planned rollout

The move to roll out lump-sum funding more broadly in Horizon Europe follows the publication of a Commission assessment of a two-year pilot under Horizon 2020, the previous EU R&D programme, which concluded that the approach was “fit for wider use”.

However, universities have now cautioned that the lump-sum approach could have “unintended consequences” for research, including the promotion of a risk-averse approach to collaboration.

In a joint statement, the Cesaer group of science and technology universities, the European University Association and the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations said they were “strong supporters of simplification” in EU research programmes, but that the conclusions of the pilot analysis should be treated with caution.

“It is worth noting that half of the respondents to the ‘participants survey’ were not successful in securing a grant,” the groups said. “For those who were, the majority of the projects started in 2019 or 2020 and will report for the first time in 2021.

“This analysis therefore does not cover the full projects’ life cycle, let alone the impact of lump-sum funding on collaboration and on projects’ research and innovation outcomes. The report should thus only be considered as an interim analysis.”

‘Negative impact’

The organisations are also concerned that the use of lump-sum funding for larger consortia “results in a risk-averse approach with regards to the choice of partners”, with applicants tending to choose partners they already know and trust.

“This creates a negative impact in terms of widening participation and strengthening pan-European collaboration objectives,” the groups said. “In addition, as this is an early assessment, the report lacks the full experiences of coordinators, as well as the full effect of lump sum on grant management, including final payments and reporting, and its impact on research, development and innovation outcomes.”

The groups concluded that broader use of lump-sum funding was “therefore premature” and that a thorough evaluation of the pilot was required before any decision could be made.

“It is essential to further develop the evidence base while finalising the pilot, since simplification efforts need to cover the full project cycle,” they concluded.

Christian Ehler, an influential MEP on the European Parliament research committee, tweeted that the groups had raised “important concerns”. He called on the Commission to “listen to stakeholders and tread carefully”.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe