European obstacles

published 25 Aug 2014
Photo: 
Chekov, Paestum, July 2014

In my last blog post, I described the basic socialist world-view and promised to follow it up with a post explaining why that world-view was so attractive. Then, I got side-tracked. The research programme that I’m working on exploded into a period of prolonged hyper-activity.

Along with my colleague Rob Brennan, between January and the end of April, I coordinated two European research consortia which put together proposals to the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 funding programme. That was a reasonably gruelling process which required us to oversee the formation of detailed research programmes, involving a dozen European institutions in 8 European countries, while navigating the complex bureaucratic procedures that the European Commission requires one to fulfil before it considers handing out multi-million euro grants.

Horizon 2020 is the 8th iteration of the EU’s scientific funding programme. It allocates €80 Billion over the next 6 years to European research, making it the biggest scientific funding package of all time. This reflects the position of scientific research at the vanguard of European integration. Centralisation of research funding makes a lot of sense for Europe. Firstly, it allows funding to be channeled towards coherent strategic goals that are designed to improve Europe’s overall competitive position with respect to its global rivals [1]. Secondly, by requiring research projects to include institutions in multiple European countries, it encourages European institutions to collaborate across borders, while also helping to create a European perspective among the continent’s influential scientific and technical leaders. Thirdly, the scale of European research funding is such that the high-risk nature of basic research can be readily absorbed. At a time when many national governments’ scientific funding bodies (Science Foundation Ireland, for example) are concentrating on more applied research – which has to be justified by short term promises of return on investment, the EU is one of the few sources of public funding for high-risk basic scientific research.

One might imagine that a centrally-administered €80 billion funding programme that spans all scientific disciplines, 28 states, 24 official languages and a great diversity of cultures might produce a considerable bureaucratic overhead. One would not be wrong: European research projects have a reputation for excessive administrative overhead and bureaucratic complexity. When I tell colleagues that I am coordinating European consortia, the most common response is sympathy verging on pity.

Indeed, coordinating consortia to submit competitive funding proposals to Horizon 2020 turned out to be a huge undertaking: months of (more-than) full time work. There are many funding schemes with the Horizon 2020 umbrella, all with different topics, submission deadlines, eligibility rules, budgets, evaluation procedures and, most importantly, forms to fill. I’d guess that it takes at least a month’s full time work to understand the basic mechanics of the system sufficiently well to have a chance of producing an eligible and competitive proposal. One has to fill in 24 pages of forms before getting to the start of the proposal proper and completed applications are at least 100 pages long. Any mistake carries the risk of the proposal being rendered ineligible and dismissed without evaluation. In some previous funding programmes up to 40% of proposals were summarily rejected.

The much-loved bureaucrat image: anon

I was starting from scratch – with no prior experience of European bureaucracy or coordinating research consortia at any level. Terror at the prospect of wasting months of my time and, more importantly, the time and energy of the esteemed scientists who were part of my consortium, was enough of a motivation to make me thoroughly read the voluminous documentation that the European Commission made available to assist applicants. By the time we had successfully submitted our second proposal at the end of April [2], myself and Rob had become intimately acquainted with the Horizon 2020 bureaucratic apparatus and had thoroughly exhausted ourselves in doing so .

Contrary to tradition and expectations, my encounter with the European bureaucratic apparatus was largely positive. It was, of course, far from perfect. Everything arrived a little bit late and there were significant last minute changes to funding calls. The templates that I had to complete were only released shortly before the submission deadline. Worst of all, the EC made a terrible mistake in the choice of technologies to drive the online submission system [3]. Also, while the proposal that I had to coordinate had a technical section that was limited to 16 pages – a sensible length - the proposal that Rob coordinated required 70+ pages of text answering tedious questions that were often vaguely delineated.

Nevertheless, despite the wrinkles [4], I was impressed. The scale is enormous. Everything is more or less documented, transparent and published in advance: the evaluation criteria, the precise procedures and regulations used. The voluminous documentation that the commission requires is reasonable in the context of multi-million grants of public money. Although the process is complex, there are numerous resources – informational events and individual contact points – devoted to helping researchers to navigate the process. In addition, both Trinity College Dublin and the Irish government, through its business development arm, Enterprise Ireland, provided significant resources to support our proposals – from travel grants to training days and a whole host of experienced advisers who can be mobilised to provide feedback. Without such institutional backing and resources, it should be said, putting together a competitive proposal [5] would be almost impossible [6].

By the time I submitted the proposal, I had a very good understanding of the system, exactly how the proposal would be evaluated, a good idea of the scientific community from which the evaluators would come, what they would be looking for in each section, and why. I came away from the process confident that, having fulfilled the commission’s bureaucratic requirements, the success or failure of the grant application would depend on its evaluation by the relevant scientific community (a process that is, of course, far from perfect). It is hard to think of ways in which the EC could run the bureaucratic process substantially better.

The most difficult thing in putting these consortia together is not, in fact, the bureaucracy. The real challenge is getting a disparate bunch of researchers in different institutions, different disciplines, different countries and different cultures to come up with a coherent and viable plan which reflects all of their individual interests, allocates resources and responsibilities more or less fairly, and also fulfils the pragmatic funding criteria defined by the EC. Most importantly, this requires significant space for the researchers involved to talk to each other about their work and to develop a shared understanding of how they can usefully collaborate. The task of the coordinator is to subtly choreograph this process so that whatever emerges in the end can be sold to the EC.

European historical research in action, Ravello, Italy 30 Jul 2014 image: Ambra Farace

Managing this delicate process for two simultaneous consortia took a lot of effort and a significant amount of travel. The first four months of the year saw myself and Rob in meetings at Oxford, London, Paris, Aarhus, Brussels, Luxembourg and Copenhagen and when we weren’t travelling, we were busy writing: meeting agendas, minutes, draft documents and a seemingly endless stream of coordinating emails.

Cliodynamics

What made it all worthwhile was the exciting research programme, which is based on cliodynamics and specifically involves the progressive construction of the Seshat database. As well as a broad general interest in social-theory testing, my research involvement is focused on developing software to collect and manage increasingly sophisticated historical datasets. In parallel with the funding proposals, we’ve been developing the Dacura software platform and testing it in a series of trials involving the collection of datasets about historical political violence in the US, UK and Ireland and we’re actively working towards extending the system to manage Seshat data.

Each of the project proposals are concerned with building high-quality historical datasets which capture slices of the Seshat data, slices that allow us to analyse some of the ‘big questions’ about human social evolution and why societies work the way they do. As more slices of data are added to the system, more complex questions about human social evolution can be asked, using data from multiple slices.

As an example of one of the big-questions that our proposals are addressing, below is the abstract of the proposal that I coordinated for the Horizon 2020 Global Systems Science call.


LESSWAR - Lessons of War: developing robust models from deep historical datasets to resolve tomorrow’s conflicts

The EU has identified "State Failure: Civil conflict [and] bad governance” as one of the 5 key global challenges and security threats of the 21st century (European Security Strategy, Brussels, 12/12/2003). Europe has launched over 20 overseas interventions since 2003 and is the leading global provider of international development funding, yet analyses of these interventions have been highly critical of the Union’s capacity to rebuild failing states and prevent conflicts [European Council on Foreign Relations, 2009].

LESSWAR will address this problem by developing robust models that can be used to understand and predict the trajectory of state stability. These models will integrate factors from across the spectrum of social, cultural, political, economic and environmental data, and will identify those variables and patterns that are most significantly predictive of fragility and conflict. They will allow analysts to characterise and understand the risk profiles associated with different policy choices and to construct integrated policy programs that are most likely to lead to greater stability and societal resilience.

LESSWAR will develop an integrated evidence base of high-quality, rich, time-series datasets describing the development of large-scale cooperation in human history, and a suite of mathematical models representing theories that have been advanced in the social sciences to explain the dynamics of social stability. A socio-technical system will be constructed to harness the knowledge and expertise of the global community of social scientists, historians, archaeologists, policy makers and citizens and provide them with the latest technologies to compile the evidence from the wealth of Internet information sources available. The models will be tested against the historical datasets and those that most successfully predict the data will be used to craft policies to resolve modern conflicts of particular relevance to Europe today.


Our hyper-active period of organising didn’t end with the submission of the two proposals in April. At the end of June when we brought a dozen of our international collaborators to Dublin for a week-long series of meetings, including a public lecture by Professor Turchin and the first International Workshop on Computational History, a day-long workshop which brought all sorts of interesting researchers working on applying mathematical models to understanding human history to Dublin. This is all part of the work of fostering broad international collaborations in the task of creating datasets to enable the testing of social theories.

I’m still pretty busy on this stuff – I’m currently coordinating another consortium preparing a proposal to apply for Future and Emerging Technology funding at the end of September – but things have settled down to a more manageable level and, having taken a holiday to recover from all that frenetic activity, I’m once again in a position to resume my blogging and continue my personal narrative where I left off. For the next few months at least, I'll be posting a blog update every Monday, starting with the remainder of the article about the far left worldview and then I’ll resume the story of my political journey with the description of the formal process of my initiation into the Workers Solidarity Movement. Bear with me, loyal readers. I will get it all down eventually.


Notes

[1] In Horizon 2020, for the first time, US-based researchers are not allowed to receive basic research funding. Researchers based in all of the countries that could be deemed to be strategic rivals to the EU (Japan, Australia, South Korea) are similarly excluded, while all other countries, including North Korea, are included. This is a tiny expression of the EU’s desire to assert its strategic autonomy from its NATO allies.

[2] The outcomes of these submissions are still unknown – the results will be released in September. It takes 5 months for proposals to be evaluated - which might seem a long time, but a huge swathe of scientific expertise and policy analysis must be mobilised in order to evaluate proposals properly and 5 months is a reasonably swift according to the time-scales that scientists and policy makers normally operate.

[3] On the EC’s web-based submission system, everything is a PDF. To fill in the forms, one has to edit PDFs online. In the absence of the correct version of Adobe’s plug-in, the submission system generates dozens of pop-up error messages every time one moves the mouse. I would guess that this was a customer support nightmare – the project officers paid the price for the commission’s poor technology choice.

[4] The programme which I applied for was the very first scientific call in the whole H2020 program, it would be unreasonable to expect no wrinkles and it is likely that some of the wrinkles have been ironed out since.

[5] European funding calls are extremely competitive, only a small minority of proposals are funded in all areas and this drops to a tiny percentage (2-5%) when it comes to basic research calls. There were 52 submissions to the GSS call for which I coordinated a proposal, and it is anticipated that just 3 will be funded. The competition includes all of Europe's leading research institutions: to have any chance of success proposals need to be very good.

[6] This creates an inherent bias towards researchers in larger, better-resourced institutions which can dedicate specific resources towards attracting funding. This is one of the reasons why scientific research funding tends to be concentrated on a relatively small number of well-established institutions. From Europe's point of view, this bias is pragmatic - institutions which lack the resources to put together competitive funding proposals will be likely to also lack the resources to manage their involvement in international research projects.

Comments (6)

Anonymous

good to have you back!

A. Myuzin

I'm sure you've looked at what the Correlates of War project have been doing.
http://www.correlatesofwar.org/objectives.htm

On another note, cliodynamics, and such modelling in general remind me a bit of Asimov's "psychohistory" ideas in the Foundation http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychohistory_(fictional)

chekov's picture
chekov

Here is Turchin, writing about the parallels between cliodynamics and psycho-history: http://socialevolutionforum.com/2012/09/03/psychohistory-and-cliodynamics/

chekov's picture
chekov

In September I submitted, with my colleague Rob Brennan, the third Horizon 2020 application of the year. Once again, I found that the effort of putting this together prevented me from writing blogs for a couple of months. After spending months writing long and detailed scientific documents, I was unable to force myself to write during my free time.

In September we also received responses to our first two proposals, the first one, described above was rejected. Happily however, the second one, called ALIGNED was accepted and funded to the tune of €4 million. This means that we are well funded to continue on this line of research all the way up to 2018. This is very exciting and we are hoping to achieve great things and really speed up cliodynamic research by an order of magnitude. This funding success needed to be adequately celebrated after almost three years of preparatory work (we started working on the technology in late 2011).

The best news, from a blogging point of view, is that I should be able to avoid funding-proposal writing for a few years at least, meaning that I have no excuses for not churning out a steady stream of articles.

Anonymous

Congratulations - fantastic news on the funding front!! Looking forward to more regular postings.

Anonymous

Have you gone awol again ? :-)