A tour through European scientific governance

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European research is fundamental for guaranteeing future competitiveness to our economies, as acknowledged by all EU member States that committed to reach investments in research and development equal to 3% of GDP. Up to date, however, the funds allocated by the 28 Countries of the Union remain below the 2% of GDP and on average do not exceed 0.7% (Fig. 1). Some Nations, however, are reversing their route. In 2000, Germany and France presented similar balance sheets; ten years later, Germany remains the only country that constantly increased public funds. Also Spain and Portugal registered an increase, whilst Italy, since 2007, showed a continual decrease.

Fig. 1 – Investment in research and development.

It is not a surprise that our Country invests in research less than the European average. Much has been written about possible solutions and paradigm shifts. Increasing funds is doubtlessly the first step, but it is also essential to review our governance system, whose management is sub-divided among countless Ministries and Bodies, resulting in inefficiencies, additional costs and discontinuity. As this was not enough, the Italian system is affected by a chronic poor interest in result application and cooperation with industry that, from its side, invests little and find hard to link private research activity with the input coming from the public research centres. Disentangling the many knots that slow down the development of Italian research is challenging indeed because of the high complexity of the system, but the management of such a central sector in the knowledge society does not represent a problem for our Country only. Let’s have a look at some of our European neighbours to see how they have faced the same issue.


In 2007, Spain approved the “Plan Nacional de I+D+i” (Plan Nacional de Investigación Científica, Desarrollo e Innovación Tecnológica), a 4 year-plan that coordinates priority politics on science, technology and development. Science and technology at the service of citizens, social welfare and sustainable development stand out among the declared aims of the Plan National. Also, the combination of research, technology and development should improve industrial competitiveness and produce new knowledge.

The example of Catalonia is singular: the region is very active in scientific research thanks to the union of public and private investments. Catalonia passed from the allocation of 0.58% of FP3 European funds (1990-1994) to 1.94% of FP7 (2007-2010) and produces publications with the most international impact of all Spain. This result has been achieved thanks to the great flexibility of Catalan research centres on funding management.  The Government (Generalitat) of Catalonia also created the excellence network ICREA, for attracting scientific talents, and has a development plan similar to international metropolis that, despite the economic difficulties, allowed the recruiting of 300 researchers (of which 40 were winners of the ERC funds) with salaries at European level.

Is there a centralized agency?

Public funds are managed both by the government and single regions, each with their own rules. At a central level, the Ministry of Science is the most involved, through agency like CDTI, FECYT and GENOMA, followed by the Ministries of Education, Industry, Health and Defence. The National Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) is the most important scientific institution in the Country and manages national and European funds for more than 100 institutes.

How are funds distributed?

More than half the budget for research is distribute as loans (a method much criticized by the scientific community), whilst the rest is provided by means of scholarships and grants. A group of scientist, researches and university presidents – the movement Open Letter for Science – required the appointment of an agency for improving the distribution of funds for research.


The Comisión Nacional de Evaluación de la Actividad Investigadora (CNEAI) was appointed in 1989 for the evaluation of university professors and personnel of research centres, and it is based on economic incentives which are provided depending on research productivity measured by books, patents and articles. In this last case, publication on international journals is much encouraged.



Germany is a Country that offers several kind of research funding, both public – thanks to different institutions and research programs – both from foundations and private centres. The Country has recently reformed public funding of education and research, allowing single institutions to achieve both high levels of autonomy and managerial responsibilities. About one third of research and development expenses in Germany are covered by the government. Bundesland (Federal Government) and Länder (Regions) act independently from one another in regard to research funding, even though coordinated initiatives are also present. There are several funding programmes, based on very competitive grants, such as the German Initiative for Excellence that lasts 5 years and is now at its second edition, paid for 75% by the Bundesland (federal Government) and for 25% by the Länder (Regions). In 2005, State and Region Governments signed an agreement, the German Pact for Research and Innovation, with several research institutions and associations active on the scientific German panorama, which receive support in exchange of further growth in quality, excellence and performance.

Is there a centralized agency?

There is not a unique agency, by several ones, both at state and federal level. The most important sources of national public funding are the ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the big research associations involved by the German Pact for Research and Innovation: the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Laboratories and the Leibniz Association.

How are funds distributed?

Ministerial funding, in particular those provided by BMBF, are divided in different research areas and programmes. The distribution of funds among the single Länder is regulated by the Joint Science Conference (GWK) according the Königstein Formula, established in 1949 and calculated on the basis of tax entries and number of inhabitants of each Länder, which determine respectively two thirds and one third of the total.


The evaluation is conducted by the German Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) by means of performance-based criteria, such as the number of students who graduate in time, the total number of graduates, the amount of external funds and the number of PhD graduates. In regards to research associations, each of them uses different criteria in the fund distribution.


United Kingdom

One of the peculiarity that distinguishes the English higher education system in respect to other European systems, is the tradition of great institutional autonomy of universities; in fact they can receive by law funding from a plurality of sources. However, the most conspicuous entry for the higher education system overall is provided by the Government by means of the unique funding for research and education and it is distributed indirectly by the Funding Council for Higher Education in England (HEFCE). The HEFCE has been established in 1992 with the Further and Higher Education Act del 1992, in order to:

  • Distribute to universities the UK government funding through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS);
  • Function as advisor for the BIS State Secretary in regard to the higher education sector needs.

Is there a centralized agency?

The HEFCE is defined as “non-departmental public body”, i.e. a body which has an acknowledged consulting function within the government processes, but is completely independent, since it is not directly administered either by the Government or by the Ministries, even though the latter are responsible for the quality and efficiency of its work in front of the Parliament. The HEFCE acts within the guidelines established by the BIS State Secretary (Business, Innovation and Skills), but it is not part of the BIS itself, since, by statute, it is free from direct political control. The members of the HEFCE managing board are directly nominated by the State Secretary and one representative of the Ministry can participate to the board meetings as evaluator, but cannot take part in the decisional process.

How are funds distributed?

Public funds for research are distributed by a dual support system: the HEFCE covers the structural costs of research centre, i.e. salaries for researchers permanently hired, maintenance and management expenses for buildings, libraries and IT centres, whilst the seven Research Councils, funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, deal with funding the specific research projects. In total, the Government contributes to the higher education sector for 63% of the total (HEFCE, 2009/32); of this percentage, 35% is allocated in one single funding, provided to the universities by the HEFCE, whilst the remaining 28% mainly represents the necessary costs for guaranteeing the right to study.


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the new system for the evaluation of the quality of the research in the UK and will be completed within 2014. It will take the place of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The REF will be conducted unitedly by the HEFCE, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council of Wales (HEFCW) and by the Department for Employment and Learning of Northern Ireland. The next assessment exercise will take place in 2014. Being excellence promotion one of the HEFCE priority, an important part of the funding is selectively allocated based on research quality, measured by periodical Research Assessment Exercises (RAE). The principal evaluation criteria include:

  • International excellence;
  • University/industry cooperation;
  • Researcher supervision.



The French system is very different from the British one, since it is not self-managed by researchers in different councils but is centralized by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research and the Ministry of Economy. Research is carried out principally by higher education institutes (162), of which 86 universities and French “Grandes Ecoles”. At operational level, the French system is mostly constituted by the following agencies, which are appointed of actualizing politics of R&D and innovation (Fig 3):

  • Oseo, which offers support for innovation and R&D projects to companies, in particular small and medium ones;
  • The National Agency for Research (ANR), established in 2007 for funding research projects based on competitiveness;
  • The Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME), established in 1991 for supporting the Environmental Fund and energy research based on partnership.;
  • Public research bodies such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), which also play a part in actualizing this politics.

Is there a centralized agency?

In France there are two different agencies with well distinguished tasks: the AERES, for the evaluation of research institutes (PROS, public research organizations) and the ANNR, for the evaluation of the research projects. The establishment of the ANR reinforced the importance of funding based of competitive projects. About 88% of the total expense for research goes to PROS. Research projects, managed by the ANR, use about 11% of the budget.


French public research institutes have internal evaluation systems for single researches and research units. In order to facilitate this system, in 2006 AERES has been established. This agency assesses public laboratories, higher education, university and institutions. For the evaluation, on the other side, of R&D projects and of research institutes funded with public money, the assessment exercise is carried out by the NCST, established in 2006. This agency is related to the 15 Ministries that support this type of projects and researches.

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