SMEs and new EU member states under-represented in EU's seventh framework programme, says report

New member states are under-represented in EU funding schemes says a report on the first two years of the EU’s seventh framework programme (FP7) for R&D.

While receiving a largely positive progress report, the European Commission (EC) highlighted some areas of the programme that required ’further attention’ going forward, including the ’rather low participation of SMEs [small and medium enterprises]’ and improving participation among researchers from new EU member states.

FP7 is due to run until 2013, and with a €54 billion (?47.9 billion) budget over seven years is the largest ever EU research and development funding programme ever. The EC said FP7 had proven itself to be well-suited to answer the EU’s economic and societal needs and helping make good progress towards building a sustainable, low carbon economy.

’I’m happy to see that FP7 is passing the test: it injects fresh money to support research, and acts as an incentive for member states and the industry to do likewise,’  European commissioner for science and research, Janez Potocnik said on the release of the report. ’FP7 is one of the EU’s key instruments to prepare for recovery from the [economic] crisis and to come out of it greener and smarter.’

In its first two years, the programme received 36 000 proposals, of which 25000 reached the final evaluation stage. 5500 of these were selected to receive grants totalling around €10 billion, and so far 3500 of these agreements have been finalised.

The part of programme supporting collaborative research has proved particularly popular, attracting more than a third of all submitted proposals, according to the report. 

Moving forward

FP7 offers more opportunities and a higher level of funding than previous framework programmes for small and medium enterprises (SMEs). However, the report noted that ’SMEs do not seem to make full use of these opportunities and their participation should be improved’. One issue is that a high percentage of self-declared SMEs do not appear to comply with the FP7 SME criteria. The EU defines ’small’ as a company with fewer than 50 employees and ’medium’ as those with less than 250; traditionally different EU states have used different definitions and this seems to be causing confusion.    

The report also said that FP7 needed to encourage more applications from ’new’ member states - defined as the last 12 states to join the EU. Researchers from the new member states represent 14 per cent of the total population of EU researchers, but only represent 11.2 per cent of the applications reaching the final evaluation stage for grants and 9.3 per cent of all applicants selected to receive grants.

Speaking at the Research Connection conference in Prague, Czech Republic, on 7 May, Potocnik called for more scientists from the new member states to get involved in FP7, saying their potential ’has not been fully tapped’. 

He does, however, admit that participation by new member states is a mixed picture, saying that whilst on average the success rate of new member state applications is lower than the overall EU average, ’a large number of [new] member states have much higher success rates than some of the old member states’. The overall success rate of the Czech Republic in the first two years of FP7, for example, was higher that that of Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, he noted.

Good reviews

Sergey Mikhalovsky and Gary Phillips from the University of Brighton, UK - who have received a number of EU grants including €2 million through FP7 to manufacture novel composite 3D monolithic adsorbent columns for uses such as blood purification - both agree that FP7 is performing well.

Mikhalovsky says the motivation for his application for EU funding was the increased opportunities for collaboration with industry offered through the scheme.

’FP7 puts even more emphasis on collaborations with industry compared to FP6,’ he explains. But whilst he is pleased that FP7 is evolving in this way, he says that more could be done: ’I still think the US government supports industry better than Europe.’ 

The pair are currently encouraging other members of their department to apply for this type of funding, ’If people have got up and running, established industrial collaborations I would certainly tell them to broaden their horizons and look to Europe for funding’, says Phillips.  

Nina Notman