Layout Marcello Barenghi
[ C H R O N I C L E ]
For thirty-five years, funding for university research is increasingly given to projects and less and less often to teams. This trend started in Europe, with the Esprit programme and successive Framework Programmes, and in France with the national research agency and the Investing in the Future programme. For those who support this method of funding, it fosters tighter links with civil society and encourages transfer to the social-economic sector, while at the same time promoting cross-disciplinary fertilisation. We will not deal with this issue here; our concern is not about the principle, but the methods.
Over time in fact, competition for precious subsidies has become increasingly bitter; now, only one project in ten, or fewer, are selected. Scientists spend a large part of their lives drafting replies to calls for tender and assessing the proposals of their colleagues. From the point of view of the science economy, this does not appear a very efficient way of working.
Added to this is the fact that the purpose of funding is more and more obscure. Initially, in universities, we insisted on the doors it opened and admitted that, as well as project remuneration, scientists could freely decide the orientation of some of their activities, because both European and national funding included general costs (in addition to operating, infrastructure, management and personnel costs) that required no receipts and thus allowed research to be conducted free of any limitations. Today, project research is conducted across the board and the ethical question of how allocated resources are used arises: should they be used only for the projects to which they have been allocated, or can they also be used to pursue other types of exploratory research?
Furthermore, over time things have become more complicated, especially on a European level. Three categories of stakeholders outside the world of research have appeared: managers, developers and intermediaries. Managers (usually administration departments in the university or the research institute where the teams are working) deal with the project accounting; they charge a fee proportional to the subsidies. Developers (specialist agencies), are in charge of logistics, especially drawing up deadlines; they present as fully involved partners and are paid from the projects in the event of success. Finally, the intermediaries serve as the contact between the partners; this is the case for European bodies such as Itea or, in France, competition clusters. They are paid on successes and charge a percentage of the sums allocated to projects.
French research funding bodies however, do not authorise costs incurred by intermediaries to be paid out of project funding. The Directorate General for Companies that manages the Invest in the Future scheme, considers that paying a contribution to a competition cluster or to Itea is not compatible with projects approved by these bodies. Project partners still need to be paid, often several thousands of euros. This assumes that they have these sums available, which places university teams in a delicate situation; where to get the money when they are not supposed to have any capital? To do so, laboratories have to squirrel away money obtained here and there... This is not exactly compatible with their vocation, which is to push back the frontiers of knowledge and sometimes contribute to transferring knowledge to the industrial sector, but never to act as a commercial agent. In any event, the issue of the purpose of project funding for research teams needs to be clarified, otherwise all sorts of abuses could occur, for example transforming these teams into service providers or consultancy companies.
Artificial intelligence researcher
Jean-Gabriel Ganascia is a professor of IT at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (Paris 6). He chairs the CNRS ethical committee (Comets).