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An overview of PRIME rationale, emergence, organisation and project

vendredi 21 janvier 2011, par julien

Prime as an idea was born at the beginning of the 2000s (2001 exactly) from an encounter of the then 3 largest centres in the field – PREST, SPRU and ISI – accompanied by a small group of individuals, Larédo and Rip in particular. The self-evaluation was rather daunting. Expressed in few ‘strong’ (and of course too caricatural) words, it highlighted : (i) the fast ageing of the community after the 1970s golden years ; (ii) a strong focus on deepening existing dominant concepts that emerged in the 1980s ; (iii) a now lasting inability to renew an indicator apparatus completely frozen in input-output statistical approaches ; and (iv) a difficult percolation between the community and policymakers still mostly moulded in a ‘linear paradigm of innovation’ and a ‘national’ approach to Europeanisation.
One reason of this situation was seen in the poor ‘academic’ funding of most researchers and labs, and the too large importance of consultancy contracts (proposing evaluations and solutions to present day problems with available concepts and methods). In one word we did have a problem of ‘transfer’ and of ‘valorisation’, but not the one emphasised by the then fashionable ‘European paradox’ : we were too connected to our stakeholder community so that we did not have enough time to renew our conceptual frameworks and methodologies.
Thus the idea of building a platform organised around ‘thematic issues’ (the lasting problems which present day knowledge did not help addressing, requiring thus to produce heterodox or ‘breakthrough’ science) and around the lasting ‘structural issues’ we considered facing : training, indicators and ‘fora for strategic intelligence’. They built the content of our initial proposal which has been kept as such in the EC contract that has organised the 5-year experiment of the PRIME Network of excellence.

Three central dimensions have shaped the collective work which arrived at our 2003 proposal, respectively focused on the research agenda, the shared facilities needed and the governance of such a collective action.

The research agenda
The idea was to take advantage of one of the then existing tools within the EC social science programme (so-called ‘thematic networks’) to see whether we could engage in building a longer-term research agenda. We were lucky in getting the grant (this reminds of early ‘small events’ that shape innovation trajectories). We were also overwhelmed by the answer from our colleagues : workshops prepared for at most 20 persons had to cope with over 50 participants, and some with 80 participants or more (cf. PRIME TN final report). This helped shaping both a vision (Larédo 2003 for the 6 challenges to face, which was built-in the FP6 proposal we made) and a research agenda identifying topics requiring renewed approaches (which were organised in 3 thematic threads, see the objectives proposed in the FP6 PRIME project).
Such a research agenda would serve as a support for bottom-up based risk-taking initiatives that should help nurturing the emergence of ‘heterodox’ methods and theories. The ambition was to support the initiating phases until ideas and approaches got enough credibility to enter the normal cycle of project funding within existing processes (at European or national levels).

The shared facilities
The core group of the thematic network had no difficulty in identifying, already in its proposal, 3 ‘shared’ facilities needed for the field to develop.
As in other networks, training was considered critical : there is nothing original in PhD conferences, summer schools or even organising the circulation of PhD students. What was new for the field, was to implement it on a large scale and give access to the whole community in Europe.
We used one of the few autonomous indicator producers (OST in France) as a crystallising actor to organise a reflection on the production of indicators.
And we borrowed from the then recently finished ASTPP project (final report in 1999-2000), which most of the initiators had participated to, the idea of ‘fora of strategic intelligence’. Together they built one central feature of our understanding of the notion of integration associated to networks of excellence.

Organisational features
What was more thought provoking was to define the organisational features of the experiment. This was given to a small group (Laredo, Martin and Rip) who opted for a ‘quasi-enterprise’ model. It was structured around 3 central features : A strong board in charge of strategy and operations, money allocation decided on a competitive basis and through projects (no ex ante allocation for any member), and a delegation for administrative, legal and financial affairs to a professional management body (Armines).
We did not want the board to be decided ex-ante but elected by the ‘shareholders’, that is the institutions participating to the NoE. The central question was then to allocate voting rights. We refused the classical ‘one institution, one vote’, considering that votes must reflect the role in the community, we also did not wish to have individual votes from researchers. The principle proposed was to allocate votes to labs following 3 central criteria : research power (the number of international visible staff in the lab), investment in the future (importance of the training effort) and involvement in Prime activities (not used at the start but important for later elections). The group proposed both the approach and the initial voting rights to an assembly of 35 labs/centres gathered to discuss their effective engagement in the project, and to the surprise of the authors, it was accepted unanimously.
This drove us to the last central organisational feature of the experiment : it had to be self monitored, not relying only on externally organised evaluations. A completely independent ‘characterisation group’ was thus created to monitor the developments of the experiment, being also in charge of renewing periodically voting rights.
All this was included into a consortium agreement that was prepared and adopted before the proposal to the EC was handed in.

The Commission in the negotiation phase was very open to our proposals and thus both the programme and the architecture were accepted without change. Furthermore, Commission officials helped precise or complement some aspects of the architecture that had not been developed (such as the money allocation process). The Commission however introduced two major changes.
In our initial project, we had two types of members : full and associated members, the latter being linked to only one activity, but not sharing the overall management. This was refused : all became full partners (no wonder that after that we had a few ‘sleeping partners’) and the process of association was only accepted as a way to keep the network open (it has de facto worked as such and we have included 10 new partners over the 5 years).
The second major change was the decision not to apply the rule that had been announced for defining the amount of the grant. Most of us being academics with both research and teaching duties we had already proposed to consider only the research time of those involved (thus we had asked for half the yearly grant of 25 k euros per involved researcher). The Commission without any explanation decided to fix a global 5-year amount (5.5 million euros) which represented the equivalent of 5 k euro/researcher involved/year (a figure not even observed since effective researchers involved, though in many cases not the same as those anticipated, have been more numerous than expected). In return it recognised that we could not do the full anticipated programme and lessened all ‘obligations of results’. This means that de facto we have conducted half the experiment we wished to conduct. Still it has turned into a sizeable one which results are presented in the website.