Central planning and Research

Diomidis Spinellis wrote earlier today about the EUs planning priorities for research and how he thinks that’s bad for innovation. I agree with his thesis, but I find his complaint somewhat naïve.

Let me explain myself: If I could only give one reason to the question “What’s wrong with EU Funded Research?”, I don’t believe that ‘central planning’ would be it; sure, there are ‘themes’ that get adopted, promoted and subsequently funded by the Commission every few years in their respective FPs and this may be — as Diomidis claims — wasteful. Yet, historically, the United States, despite its overwhelming superiority in wealth, technology and the — now — more than obvious brain drain effect, has had the most prominent centrally planned academia of all developed countries by far. This goes to show that centrally planned research cannot be examined separately from the multitude of other variables involved when considering research funding, that there’s much more to blame besides planning when criticising EU Research and finally that planning per se is not a determining factor.

While I was at Imperial and in various discussions with colleagues and friends from the States, it was clear to me that research Stateside was prescribed in massive umbrella projects, whose funds trickled down the hierarchy, from professors, to post-docs and Ph.Ds; the freedom to choose what to work upon was severely constrained and the topics of research were more or less decided at a very high level where only the top of the academic hierarchy could have a say. This was especially true in the fields of science and technology where military and government programmes demanded specific outcomes, deadlines and themes.

A knowledgeable and astute reader will no doubt retort that the average US research project enjoys funding at least one order of magnitude greater than the equivalent European. Take for example the newly founded EIT institute in Budapest, with initial funding of “more than €300 million” by the EU. €300 million, which is peanuts compared to US funding which in many cases reaches more than $30million per project. Just in the fields of science and technology DARPA funding in FY2009 is going to reach almost $3.3bn [PDF]. NSF, the US National Science Foundation has a requested a budget of about $6.8bn [PDF] for FY2009, again on similar topics of research. Overall, in all sectors including Agricultural, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, Interior, Environmental and Homeland Security, the US Federal R&D Budget reached $139.072bn in 2007 and is expected to reach $143.063bn in 2008 [see here, p.52]. Contrast that with the €50bn allocated for FP7 in the EU for 2007-2013. Clearly, government funding is a fundamental reason for which EU research lags behind the US, no matter what Barroso claims with regards to private/industrial funding.

Yet, it’s not only about funding. For all its failings (and there are many), the US has much more productive and efficient research programmes and I’ll dare say much less corrupt. In my relatively limited experience with EU research, I’ve noticed widespread corruption that permeates all sectors of the funding chain, from the Commission, to academics, to contractors. Peer-review rarely works when the ‘peers’ are all acquainted and there are cyclical graphs of academics supporting each other. As far as industrial cooperation is concerned, EU projects are often means for sustaining underperforming, stale european corporations that live off them without innovating at all. In some cases academics attain huge personal wealth through various tricks that exploit the lack of proper and comprehensive auditing of where the money goes and who is employed in such projects.

An old, yet typical example of how corrupt academics exploit the EU research budget that is often discussed in academic circles is that of a professor leading an EU project that hires research assistants in more than one EU project and paying them a small part of the stated salary while keeping the rest for him or herself. The researcher gets a small ‘bonus’, the professor gets to keep the money and pays the additional ‘tax’ that is incurred upon the researcher. In some cases a professor can do this with more than 20 or 30 students or R.A.s which translates to several tens thousands of euros of monthly income. Besides illegal, this is also hurting both academia (those people are in some cases dissuaded from remaining in an academic environment and disappointed by its function) and — obviously — the EU budget as the corrupt academics skim millions off research budgets that could be used elsewhere. I’m sure phenomena such as this still happen in many universities across the EU. Additional auditing along with a restriction of one project per researcher would effectively remedy (or at least considerably limit) this phenomenon.

Still, employing Bell Labs as an example is somewhat misleading when it stands alone as an outstanding centre for innovation of the 20th century all the while the U.S is the leading example of a centrally planned research. Bell Labs is by no means representative of U.S. academia. It is also impossible to scale to a national level, let alone the level of the EU.

There’s no doubt that centrally planned funding, of the sort witnessed in Europe today, harms EU research. Individual freedom to research, be it at a professorial or research fellow level, is one of the things European research has retained that should be preserved. That is the freedom to choose and work on topics that may not be part of huge umbrella projects. And to retain this freedom you need funding that goes to good researchers with minimal interference (viz. bureaucracy) and the least possible ‘micromanagement’ (as Diomidis puts it), but with proper assessment and auditing mechanisms.

I’m quite certain that the European Commission’s research Framework Programmes have suffered from exactly what Diomidis describes and I could not agree more with his statement that “Centrally-planned, agenda-driven research seldom delivers tangible results and often squanders money.”

Sadly there’s so many more fundamental problems with EU research, its funding and management (lack of funding, widespread and deeply rooted corruption both in matter of fund allocation and appropriation, project allocation and quality assessment) that arguing about the central planning aspect of the Commission’s FPs seems like a somewhat frivolous exercise.

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2 Responses to “Central planning and Research”

  1. Diomidis Spinellis says:

    I agree with the additional reasons you state for Europe’s sorry state in research: lack of adequate funding, mismanagement, corruption. My post was prompted by the European Commission Information Society’s public consultation exercise, and this is why it concentrated on central planning. Certainly, a bottom-up examination of European research would uncover many problems; for instance, I would also add the lack of mobility of European researchers.

  2. cosmix says:

    Diomidi, thanks for the comment. I’m not certain that a ‘bottom-up examination’ is necessary to identify why EU research is as it is. I would probably say that an ‘objective and honest’ examination is, however.

    Regarding mobility, I haven’t seen this. Despite the aforementioned problems with EU funding I always found the travel budgets to be adequate (if not generous). Or is this a reference to the inherent parochial mindset that underlines so many of the European cultures? If that’s the case, I’d agree, although I have to note that the use of English throughout Europe and (oh the irony) EU programmes have slowly removed (or at least concealed) that obstacle.

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