Bureaucracy and waste tarnish EU grants
oney is scarce for basic research in medicine. If neither the universities nor the state have surplus cash, researchers have to look elsewhere. The European Union is a leading option.
In medicine, and thus radiology, there is the Fifth Framework Program, which is called the Fifth Framework Programme in Brussels. Part of it is called Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources which sounds like an incentive of a travel agency but in reality it is the Edith Cresson Memorial Fund.
In 1998, the ministers in charge of science in the members states of the European Union delayed the entire four-year program by eight months. Together with the member of the European Parliament they could not agree upon the amount of money to be put into this program.
The amount they quarreled over is minimal compared to the rest of the EU budget: The Union spends nearly 50% for agriculture and most of the rest is pumped into structural aid for underdeveloped regions in Europe (which includes moving the European Parliament once a month from Brussels to Strasbourg and back, including tons of files and bureaucrats).
Just 3.8% are allocated for research. The rest is lost in accounting.
Here is the diary of our application:
1 January. The university is closed. So are all offices of the EC in Brussels.
15 January. The university has turned on the heating again. Nobody answers any telephone calls in Brussels. I call somebody who knows somebody whose uncle has heard that there is a new call for applications for EC research grants. It is posted on the internet and on billboards in the Athens’ subway. I decide against flying to Athens and go for the internet. It would have been easier to take a train to Greece and buy a subway ticket.
18 January. I have found the program announcement on the internet. I feel relieved. For some reasons it cannot be found at ...@ec or ...@eu or something similar, but at ...@cordis. One learns step by step.
To apply for an EC grant one used to have to fill out endless forms in a typewriter because nobody in Brussels had heard of word-processing. This year they finally have forms for word-processors.
19 January. The last conclusion was wrong. They have forms. They are on the internet. However, our laser printer cannot print out the forms. It must be our fault.
21 January. We are still trying to print. We know that one needs Adobe Acrobat Reader version 3. We have downloaded that software with the help of the EC. Unfortunately the Brussels’ forms are in Acrobat 3.02, but only 3.01 is available from the manufacturer.
25 January. We have bought a new printer. Finally, we can print the forms. Technology is a miracle. Internet is the technology of the future. It would have been easier to get the forms by mail from Brussels; but who wants to fight progress?
26 January. Of course it would be stupid to fill out the forms using a typewriter. One should be able to use the computer. Of course this is possible; however, you cannot save the contents. When you close the program, all your work disappears.
5 February. The EC announces a new software developed together with Price Waterhouse and some other consulting and software companies. It is called ProTool. It will facilitate grant applications and remove all problems. We are looking forward to it. The application deadline is in May ... still a long time to go.
15 February. The new software has been released. We try to download it from the web.
18 February. We are still trying.
21 February. We have succeeded.
22 February. It still doesn’t work.
24 February. We had to buy a new computer; it seems that everything older than a year cannot handle the new software. Our new computer was able to run ProTool once; but once only. It seems that it is written for Windows 95, but our software is Windows 98.
3 March. We have hired one additional software engineer because the application guidelines say explicitly: “You are strongly advised to submit the forms electronically”.
"We have wasted several man-months of senseless work and an enormous amount of money for unnecessary new equipment because some people connected to the European Union play around with non-functioning technology."
15 March. We give up. We will not be able to submit a proposal before the deadline. We have wasted several man-months of senseless work and an enormous amount of money for unnecessary new equipment because some people connected to the European Union play around with non-functioning technology.
Later we found out that hardly anybody was able to submit proposals on the internet with the EU software. People who were more intelligent typed everything using a typewriter and sent their proposals by mail.
12 October. We have submitted a nicely typed proposal ready for the second deadline on 15 October.
15 October. We just found out that the deadline has been changed to the 15 November. No explanation is given why it has been postponed.
21 June (of the following year). We have still not received a letter of receipt for our application. This letter should have been mailed out immediately after the application arrived in Brussels; and there is still no answer on the outcome of the application.
The response to our monthly call to Brussels is always the same: the head of the unit has the response letters on his desk but has not found the time to sign them.
There is another grant program called INTAS. It is aimed at supporting cooperation between EU universities and research institutions in Eastern Europe. We want to cooperate with a Russian university.
The application is easy. You just have to fill out some forms. The only way to fill them out is on the internet. Of course this is a big advantage because one does not have to send forms by mail to Russia and back. You just type in your part, the partners can read it – and make changes if necessary – and then the file is forwarded over the net to Brussels for evaluation. To guarantee confidentiality there is a password for all participants.
The first exchanges between us and the Russian university were successful. Technology has its advantages. Then suddenly the log-in is blocked. Hectic e-mail exchanges between us and Russia follow. Finally Brussels is contacted. After several days of silence, there is an answer: The software is programmed in a manner that files are closed and locked for good if one partner makes a mistake when filling out the forms.
No, the file cannot be opened again. Yes, one has to start with a new application for a new password and fill in all forms from the beginning. Yes, nobody is perfect.
To guarantee a fair selection process of all applications to the Fifth Framework Program, the proposals are checked by a board of scientific experts who have to travel to Brussels and stay there for a week or two. I was invited as an expert for diagnostic imaging of Alzheimer’s disease – and eventually evaluated proposals concerning hips and knees.
For the evaluation process, the EU emptied a large building in the city center, refurbished the rooms with elderly chairs and desks and switched off the water in the toilets and the air-conditioning at outside temperatures around 30 degrees. At the entrance the experts were greeted by an EU official with a hairdo like the lead singer of the Leningrad Cowboys. He distributed name tags and forms to be filled out.
For each topic several hundred applications from all over Europe were submitted. Preparing such an application takes several months and costs at least EUR 10,000, perhaps even 20,000-25,000. In other words, the applicants, be they universities or companies, invested several million euros in their applications.
"At the beginning of the evaluation procedure each expert received 12-15 anonymous applications and was told to reject 85% of them in the first round."
At the beginning of the evaluation procedure each expert received 12-15 anonymous applications and was told to reject 85% of them in the first round. In other words, of 12 applications 10 are to be rejected immediately. Depending on the mood of the expert, this is done by painstakingly checking each application, reading only the first page, or searching for spelling errors. British and Italian experts seem to try to find out which applications originate in their countries and push only those.
Finally, a decision based on scientific merit is made; then the selection is handed over to the upper echelon of EU officials – and you never know which project will get support; there is a veil of secrecy and no independent control.
In the July/August 1996 issue of Diagnostic Imaging Europe, Philip Ward, wrote in his editorial:
“... clearly, the EC is holding out an olive branch, and researchers must respond positively and seize the opportunity with vigor and enthusiasm.”
I am very enthusiastic about the idea of the European Union, but one’s enthusiasm evaporates rapidly after having seen the chaos and ignorant unwillingness of high-level bureaucrats and politicians trying to find viable ways to administer the money we pay for Europe.
As for the olive branch: We have started planning several plantations with 10,000 olive trees each. With the subsidies we will get out of the unlimited agricultural budget of the European Community we will finance some medical research. They say the new forms are easy.
P.S. The people actually involved in the organization process are not to be blamed. They are like the ground staff of airlines, who are not responsible for the flight delays.
P.P.S. This column was written before we finally received the rejection letter for our proposal. According to the expert referee, we are not competent to build flight simulators. I agree. On the other hand, we had not proposed to build a flight simulator. Who needs flight simulators in medical imaging?
We had applied for an update of the magnetic resonance image simulation program “MR Image Expert”. We developed the new version without help from Brussels.
P.P.S. The part about the Athens subway has been invented, as are the contents of the last paragraph on olive trees. The rest is true! This column is not a satire.