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Focused research keeps Europe at the forefront in photonics

03 Oct 2008

The European Commission regularly invites proposals for photonics research intended to keep Europe competitive. John Magan, deputy head of the EC's Photonics Unit, outlines how the process works.

How is photonics research in the European Commission structured?
The Photonics Unit is one of the basic technology units of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) programme, which is in turn one of the major themes identified for the 7th European Research Framework Programme (FP7). Photonics technologies are funded at a level of about €45 m a year.

Every two years we issue a work programme that describes the work that we would like to fund, with typically two calls for proposals per work programme. The next ICT work programme should be published at the end of November.

How do you call for proposals?
First we decide what the research topics should be, guided by external experts in the field. We collect input from various sources, with the Photonics21 technology platform being an important one. We also use our own knowledge of what's happening in photonics. We consult with representatives from all of the countries participating in our programme, not just members of the EU, but also Switzerland, Israel, countries in Eastern Europe and so on.

Funding schemes include Specific Targeted Research Projects, or STREPs, which are small- to medium-sized transnational multipartner projects running typically for two or three years. Then there are larger-scale integrated projects, which are broader in scope and aim to operate on more than one level.

There are also networks of excellence, formed by research teams in the framework of longer-term co-operation. Finally there are coordination and support activities aimed at networking, exchanges, conferences and so on.

What makes a good proposal?
Proposals should be clear, unambiguous and to the point; some of the best proposals are the shortest ones. They should be internally consistent and explain briefly and concisely why the work is being done.

Proposers should pick their consortium members carefully, with the right people for the job and no more partners than necessary. There are optimal sizes and numbers of partners for the different sorts of project, and that guidance is available from us.

We also require a fixed structure for the proposal, to make it easier for our evaluators to assess them and compare one with another. Proposers should look at the assessment criteria and ensure all aspects are covered in their proposal to get high marks.

We use an electronic proposal submission system. Proposers are strongly encouraged to submit early and then alter and resubmit if needed, but leaving everything until just before the deadline is extremely dangerous.

Don't submit a proposal that's actually ineligible or breaks the rules, for example by having participants from only one country or wanting to do work that isn't included in the work programme (it happens). We offer a service called pre-proposals to check that proposals are eligible and address topics that we are actually calling for.

How are proposals assessed?
Proposals are checked for eligibility, then assigned to several independent experts to read and assess individually. We bring those experts together, let them reach a consensus, and prepare a summary report and score card for each proposal.

The independent experts are drawn from academia and industry, SMEs, research institutes and universities, so proposers can expect to be assessed by a group of their peers. A good way to learn about this process is to actually sit on the other side of the fence and see how things are done. We always welcome enquiries from qualified people who want to be an evaluator.

The criteria against which the proposal is evaluated are:

• Scientific and technical quality: the soundness of the concept, quality of objectives, progress beyond the state of the art, the quality and effectiveness of the scientific approach and methodology.

• Implementation: the management structures and procedures, the quality and balance of the consortium and how its resources are allocated.

• Impact: what will the project result in. We are an industrially relevant research programme, so of course we expect that the work will eventually contribute to competitiveness in Europe and lead to a product or service.

Many proposers put most of their effort into the first criteria to the detriment of the other two, but all three equally contribute to the overall score so proposers must pay attention to all of them.

What assistance can you provide?
There are contacts at the Commission who are there to help proposers with any questions. There are also national contacts in each country, to help proposers understand the information that they receive from Brussels. Those national contacts can also be of help in finding partners elsewhere or even just to discuss the proposals.We also operate a helpdesk for proposers with questions, and another helpdesk for the technical side of the electronic submission process.

Does this system keep European photonics competitive?
Apart from their expected outcome, projects often also produce results or benefits in ways that were not expected. Perhaps even more importantly, they support European ingenuity and co-operation and raise the overall level of technical expertise in Europe, and help keep good-quality technologists here. But we're always open to suggestions on what areas we should be supporting or how we should be doing so.

The Photonics Unit website can be found at http://cordis.europa.eu/fp7/ict/photonics/home_en.html.

• This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Optics & Laser Europe magazine.

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