Working on an EC Research Project

helen kara photoIn this post, independent researcher and scholar Helen Kara writes about her experience working on a European Commission research project for the first time. Helen reflects on the scale of European projects, the network of contacts required, and relationship building pre- and post-Covid. She also considers how to make a positive contribution and stand out amongst the complexity of teams, acronyms and work packages.

In late 2016 I was invited to join a team preparing to respond to a call for research proposals from the European Commission (EC) under their Horizon 2020 work programme for 2016-17. The first thing I learned was that EC work programmes are huge. This one was called “Science with and for Society” (SwafS) and included 27 separate projects the EC wanted to fund. The project I was invited to work on was SwafS-21-2017: Promoting integrity in the use of research results in evidence-based policy: a focus on non-medical research. The call for this project was scheduled to open in April 2017, with a deadline of 30 August 2017, and a commitment that a decision would be made and communicated no later than 30 January 2018. The indicative budget was €2.8M.

I had never worked on an EC project before and I was keen to give it a try. Also I was in the middle of writing Research Ethics in the Real World, so I thought the project might be useful for that too. And the invitation came through an SRA contact, Ron Iphofen, who I knew and respected, and who was proposing to lead not only our team but the whole project. I knew Ron had loads of experience of EC work and he knew I didn’t have any. I figured I could learn from him, and others, as we went along.

The call sought to create an ethical framework, for all non-medical research, akin to the medical research ethics frameworks of Oviedo and Helsinki. It was an ambitious project so of course it needed a long and detailed application. Emails began to ping back and forth across the EU and beyond. I learned new words and phrases: work packages, deliverables, person-months. Acronyms abounded. I met online with colleagues from all around the EU: Greece, Estonia, France, Italy, Croatia, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland. I was very glad that all business was conducted in English, and embarrassed at my inability to speak any other languages.

Another big gap in my attributes was a lack of powerful people in my networks. My fellow UK team members tossed around names of senior academic, political, and EC people who could be relied on to provide this or offer that, and I had nothing to contribute. But I could, and did, read, consider, and give feedback on draft sections of the application, and take part in discussions via email and online.

The UK team, made up of independent researchers and academics, needed to find a host institution who would deal with the EC reporting and financial admin in return for a suitable share of the budget. We were fortunate that the Academy of Social Sciences agreed to take on this role. We called our proposed project PRO-RES (PROmoting integrity in the use of RESearch results) and were delighted when our proposal was chosen. The grant agreement ran to 269 pages, 40 of which spelled out in detail what we had agreed to do. These 40 pages became a lodestone to return to as the project progressed.

To begin with I didn’t really understand what was going on. There were 14 teams altogether, each doing different jobs: mapping, consulting, case studies, website… ours was the lead team so we did a bit of most things. The project as a whole seemed complex and inscrutable, but fortunately I was able to undertake enough specific tasks to pull my weight. In the first phase of the project we held workshops all around Europe, talking with people from different disciplines, fields, and professions about their views and experiences of research ethics. I attended the first project meeting in Brussels in May 2018, helped to run events in Dublin and London, and went to a second project meeting in Strasbourg in September 2019. These face-to-face meetings and events were hugely helpful in enabling me to develop good working relationships with colleagues from around the EU.

Brexit, however, was not helpful. I spent a lot of time apologising for the UK Government. Fortunately my EU colleagues were understanding, though by the end of the project, in October 2021, it was evident that their patience was running low. Throughout the project the UK was regularly the butt of jokes in which Brexit was usually the punchline. A piece of advice often given to people who are new to international projects is not to make jokes, as they don’t usually translate well, but that never seemed to be a problem where Brexit was concerned. At least the jokes helped to alleviate any Brexit-related tension.

Halfway through the project, in February 2020, we had a mid-term conference in Brussels, at the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts, a palatial venue which proved a delightful setting for our work. And I managed to come up with an excellent speaker for the event, chief executive of Demos Polly Mackenzie. She is in no sense ‘in my networks’, but I thought that if she agreed, she would do a good job, and she did. At the conference I strengthened working relationships with people I had already met at previous meetings, and even spoke to someone from the EC ethics department, who had a rather godly reputation but turned out to be very approachable.

Soon after that of course the pandemic hit, and that was the end of relationship-building and the start of switching to 100% remote working for the rest of the project. In fact we had to suspend much of our work for a while as we figured out how to change our methods. We had planned a series of events for the second phase of the project, and in the end we decided to use telephone or video interviews instead. This worked well enough and we completed the project with a final online conference in October 2021.

The main outputs are a framework for ethical evidence which has three pillars: an Accord, with principles for people/organisations to sign up to and endorse; a supplementary Toolbox to help people identify or produce ethical evidence; and Resources which support both the Accord and the Toolbox. All of this is online and will continue to be updated for the foreseeable future.

I feel sad to have finished this project because I worked with some terrific colleagues and it is only now, just as we have finished, that I feel as if I know what I am doing! I hope I get the opportunity to work on another EC project one day.

Author biography

Dr Helen Kara FAcSS has been an independent researcher since 1999 and an independent scholar since 2011. She writes about research methods and research ethics, and teaches doctoral students and staff at higher education institutions worldwide. Her books include Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide and Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives for Policy Press, and she has written and edited several other books for Policy Press, SAGE and Routledge. She is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.