Brussels — Experts have questioned the ability of Horizon 2020 - the new six-year funding mechanism for European research - to foster research partnerships and build capacity in the developing world.
At a conference in Brussels this month (4-8 March), researchers and politicians raised objections to the mechanism's complex application procedures and its lack of commitment to capacity building and educational outreach projects.
Added to these pitfalls, Horizon 2020, which will be the European Union's (EU) main instrument for funding research until 2020, saw its proposed €80 billion (around US$100 billion) budget cut by around €9 billion (more than US$11 billion) in February.
Amin Soebandrio, Indonesia's deputy minister for the International Science and Technology Network, believed that if the framework is to encourage partnerships with developing countries, those behind it must make a greater effort to make the paperwork understandable.
"Researchers can be put off from applying for EU grants as they think the complex process will slow down their work," he told SciDev.Net at the conference, EU Science: Global Challenges and Global Collaboration.
Zeinab Osman, director of the Institute for Technological Research at the National Centre for Research in Sudan, reiterated this point, saying that a lot more scientists would apply for grants if the process were streamlined.
"The EU needs to take leadership on this issue, but there has not been enough effort to make clear what is involved," she said.
But leadership is exactly what the EU is showing, argued Maria da Graça Carvalho, a member of European Parliament whose role as rapporteur for the Specific Programme Implementing Horizon 2020 places her at the heart of the process.
The use of lump-sum funding for entire projects and the harmonisation of the rules governing all the funding instruments have streamlined the process, and were carried out with the developing world in mind, she said.
Nonetheless, a certain level of complexity was necessary, she said, adding that developing world scientists could benefit from creating networks with European researchers who have a good understanding of the application process.
Others hoped to increase collaborations. Javaid Laghari, coordinator general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) told the meeting: "I am here to reach out to the European community to ask for help to build our capacity in science and technology for social and economic development ... We need cooperation and collaboration to boost our capacity in crucial areas".
Laghari told SciDev.Net that a lack of political willpower was the only hurdle to fruitful collaborations. But he was hopeful that Horizon 2020 could help to galvanise EU support for capacity building in OIC countries, and urged the scientific and political communities to get behind it.
Beyond the need for political support, others argued that the framework lacked a suitable mechanism for supporting capacity building through outreach activities.
Kevin Govender, director of the International Astronomy Union's Office of Astronomy for Development, said inspirational outreach activities, where young people are exposed to science first hand, were vital for nurturing the next generation of scientists.
Horizon 2020's focus on research and innovation was important, but only by encouraging people in developing countries to pursue scientific careers would scientific capacity be secured in the long term, he added.
"I think it would be good if the importance of education and the public understanding of science was explicitly recognised [in the Horizon 2020 framework] as a contributor to research and innovation," he told SciDev.Net.
Carvalho acknowledged the importance of capacity building and outreach but insisted that they had not escaped the notice of EU policymakers.
Horizon 2020 will not directly fund outreach and capacity building activities, but they will be covered by a dedicated budget within a closely linked financial instrument, the European Development Fund, she told SciDev.Net.
All things considered, Carvalho believed the framework was a "considerable improvement" on the EU's previous funding scheme: the EU 7th Framework Programme.
"It's simpler, it has more funding and it's more ambitious for reaching outside of Europe and fostering international collaboration."