March 14, 2011

Inside the FP7 evaluation (part 2): the process

The European Commission and committees of major academic conferences face a same challenge: select in a fair manner a dozen of proposals out of 100 (including 90 serious candidates). The process consists of three stages:
  1. reviewing the proposals. As I explained in my previous post, each proposal is a 100-pages long document, which is written by "artists". Three criteria are evaluated: one about the scientific soundness, one about the consortium quality and one about the exploitation. Every criteria is evaluated on a scale ranging from 0 to 5 where half-marks are accepted.
  2. reaching a consensus. For each proposal, five people (the three reviewers, one recorder and a moderator) meet during one hour. The goal is to reach a consensus, which should result in a unified text and a final score for every criteria. The role of the recorder is crucial. She has not read the proposal, but she looked at the reviews, so she knows the main trends. From the meeting discussion, she tries to extract some statements, then her text is revised "live" by the reviewers (and sometimes by the moderator). Wording is considered as important, so some sentences require up to 15 minutes to be accepted by every reviewer. In general, meetings are lively because some reviewers disagree, and it is common that reviewers actually argue. A consensus is reached in most meetings, but frequently in a unpleasant way because an enthusiastic reviewer has few chances to convince both other reviewers, and a positive-but-not-that-much consensus does not produce a winning project. In case of unreachable consensus, additional reviewers are invited to read the proposal. Eventually, a score is voted. 
  3. deciding. The panel committee meeting is like a program committee meeting except that a ranking is produced (even rejected proposals are ranked). The overall note ranges from 0 to 15, but of course, most proposals are between 8.5 and 13.5. There is a critical tie on a high score (around 13) because only a fraction of proposals having this score can be funded. A specific algorithm is used to break ties. In our case, proposals are ranked based on:
    1. the highest score in the Exploitation criteria, then, if tie again,
    2. the highest score in the Scientific criteria
    3. the largest ratio of industries
    4. the largest ratio of SMEs
    5. the largest ratio of partners from new member states of EU
    The role of the reviewers is actually marginal during this meeting: checking the consistency between final texts and final score for every proposal. Downgrading (or upgrading) a proposal after a quick cross-reading is very rare, and deserves a long agreement discussion from the panel. 
The overall process suffers from a drawback: reviewers spend a lot of time on bad proposals. Every proposal, even the worst one, requires one hour of consensus meeting. Saving this time could let reviewers read a subset of the best proposals, and increase the quality of the final choice. In the panel meeting, a long time is also wasted on revising the text for every proposal, even the ones that will not be funded, although panelists do not have sufficient time to discuss the borderline proposals.

The consensus part is funny. The overall result of the consensus meetings is rarely a "blind union" of three independent reviews (as it is done in most conferences, like averaging three scores). For example, three reviewers adopted a 4.0 for the scientific part (which is a very good score) but they reached a consensus with a score of 2.5 (which is below the threshold) because the flaws they identified were complementary, or because they discovered that they share an overall lack of excitement about the proposal, so they took time to detect actual flaws justifying the reject.

The overall process is fair, and there is no way to express any subjective opinion, like this topic is funnier than the other, or these guys should be assisted because their country bankrupts, or I don't like this crappy acronym

March 1, 2011

inside the FP7 evaluation (part 1?)

I am involved in the process of project evaluation for the European Commission for the first time. Some selected remarks:
  • there is an art of writing proposals. Scientists know that the art of writing academic papers has become a key skill in the modern science battlefield. The art of writing proposal is also widely admitted, but I had never faced it. Now I know. The top proposals I reviewed have a lot in common, including the approach and the style. Generally, these projects are about an exciting but obscured concept (vaporware?), supported by a very standard research from high-h-ranked scientists (business as usual), in cooperation with fresh SMEs (old students), and the classic large company (whose role is... hmm, well, to be there). These proposals have probably been powerpoint in a previous life: objectives are presented in a bullet-mode emphatic way, the proposal is un-verbose (so less risk of inconsistency), every page contains a figure or a table. As can be expected, the workpackage organization is perfect with an ideal balance of man-month by workpackage and by partners. It is difficult to know the future of such project. The academic work is probably already under submission. Several web revolutions will occur until the end of the project. The final software will probably fail, because it will be coded by un-managed students in University. However, in the evaluation form of European Commission, such a proposal deserves a "check" for every critical parameter, so at the end, they have good chances to win.
  • it is innovation, it is not about research. For those who had doubts. The best proposals are ambitious. Most of them include some attractive real-world experimentations, which requires committing a lot of developers. As the overall funding is constrained, the research-oriented demand is minimal. Moreover, as previously said, no inconsistency is tolerable, therefore every dozen of claimed man-month should be justified, and related with the remaining of the project, which is very short-term. Therefore, the scientific topic of every participating "researcher" is approximately defined in advance. Is it research? Of course not, it is the so-called innovation by research. I tend to be in favor of such early development project, however the other funding agencies (local area and national) follow the same objective, so is there a way to make un-purposed research? And why the hell are there so few innovations by research from Europe although it is already the seventh similar program?
  • the reviewing process is very short, but well paid. I detected one bad consequence from being a paid reviewer: reviewers have incentives to evaluate more projects, although they have no time to evaluate them carefully. Delays are very tight: I had seven projects to review in less than twelve days, each project being a hundred pages document, which details a three years long study by a consortium ranging from six to twelve partners. Moreover, the quality of the proposals was excellent, even for the worst one. Hence, one half day for a complete reviewing is minimum for a (slow?) young scientist like me. The risk is to produce a quick evaluation based on the strategy of "killing a project for any small detail". My personal reviewing strategy (I saw several people doing the same) was to first have a very quick first pass on the whole document, then to go into details once the overall concept was clear. In this context, no inconsistency is tolerable, it is better to have only one proposal writer, preferentially someone who... now come back to the first point of this post.
I will probably have more to say after my week at Brussels for the final decision.