I am a Marie Curie early stage researcher in a H2020 funded project (early training network, for those aware of the terminology), that's spread between several universities in Europe (including where I am now, London /snark). I'm approaching the end of my contract.

This project is, according to the published figures, rather lavishly funded (€4 mil in total). Just in the "Research, Networking and Training Costs" there's approx €200k for three researchers for three years (that comes to 1800/mo per researcher!). This excludes salary costs, management costs, etc.

This project has been plagued from the beginning by a serious lack of transparency and mismanagement, which has been slowly revealed throughout the duration of the project.

Some examples:

  • We, as researchers, were not consulted as to what training we need, and were "forced" to go to courses & workshops organised by the consortium partners, which half of the time were useless (completely off topic).
  • Even if we didn't attend said workshops (out of desperation to get work done, in my case), the host university would still pay the organising partner a set "participation" fee.
  • I was told there's no budget to go to conferences, even if I had a paper in. Some of us had to pay up front for our secondment related travel costs (at our industry partners).
  • We were told secondments were mandatory 8 months, whereas actually they were maximum 8 months.
  • My host university slotted me in at the wrong pay grade for two years (was being underpaid - this issue is sorted, but just goes to show). They're still using the wrong conversion rate, instead of the ECB rate (£0.7 for €1), but apparently that's going to get sorted at the end of the contract.

My conundrum is simple: I've just been told that my host university has overspent, and there's no more money for me to go to an important industry board meeting where I was invited due to the research I've been doing so far, and supposed to talk about it in front of a couple of important industry actors in my field.

I'm a bit fed up. I have never seen a single excel sheet of sorts on what the money has been spent so far, by whom and on what. It has been consistently denied to us. From my own book-keeping, I've spent, so far, somewhere in the range of 1/5th of my total budget.

I'm afraid to push too hard on my supervisors for details, as I still need to (write and) submit a dissertation with them, and maybe get a PhD degree - and they might easily get offended.

I also believe this should be "sorted out" at one point or the other. I've been previously working in practice (Architecture & Engineering) for 4 years where such behaviour would have spelled instant trouble and litigations. How would one report/flag serious concern/blow a whistle on such a project, in the rather sensitive British cultural context?

Disclaimer: I do realise I am in a very lucky position, and life can be much worse in academia & research than I'm having it... it's just that I might have a too developed sense of justice or need for clarity for my own good.

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    Your post seems to mention a lot of quite precise numbers. I'm not sure how easy it would be for people closer to your project to identify faculties or persons involved (including you), so you might want to edit those a bit..
    – nabla
    Feb 5 '18 at 15:46
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    Plus, as a Marie Courie in the UK, you generally need to pay the university fees from the salaries, there it goes another 6K£/year at least. Often too, as Marie Couries are not students, but staff, there is an overhead of money to pay taxes, plus university "staff fees", etc. Yes, its good you are worried and that want to check where your funding goes (paying for your own conferences is definitely not the norm at all), but I'd threat carefully about calling funds "disappearing". Feb 5 '18 at 15:55
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    @AnderBiguri reading the plural of Marie Curie is like hearing the sound of dentist's driller... Feb 5 '18 at 16:17
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    @HermanToothrot <Says Mr Toothrot> Feb 5 '18 at 16:18
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    @HermanToothrot Marie Curii?
    – Bilkokuya
    Feb 6 '18 at 11:12

These are public funding from the EU, I don't think there should be any secrets how the money has been used, because eventually the universities involved will have to report this to the EU. Don't go point blank to the secretary or the PI until you have gathered more information, there might be expenses or costs that are legitimate and that you don't know about.

A first step would be to ask the secretary/auditor in charge of the bookkeeping the documents documenting how the money has been used.

Secondly you have to go through these and flag transactions that according to your knowledge don't sounds right. You then need to gather some information if these flagged expenses sound right or not, you could also contact the EU for this.

Third step, if some of these transaction don't make sense ask to the people who reported these expenses.

Last step, if you find discrepancies you have to bring this up with the EU.

  • Thanks for the sensible answer. I've asked for an update and it seems we're going to get one. Agree with the EU being last resort. I'm not looking to cause potential lasting damage due to miscommunication, or revenge. Let's see how it goes.
    – Dimitrie
    Feb 5 '18 at 16:54
  • @Dimitrie in most UK universities the relevant individuals for "bookkeeping" will be in the "Grants department" who are responsible for tracking the spending across all awards. This dept should produce monthly reports, especially for large external grants such as Horizon2020. Any large transactions should have been approved by the Finance dept. Grants may be reluctant to share spending info with you as you're not the PI, but if you raise your concerns with them discretely (i.e. send a vague email and voice your concerns directly in a video call) they should take it seriously. Good luck Feb 22 at 9:35

I am not detailedly aware of European Training Networks, but it sounds like you are grossly misunderstanding some things here.

1. €200k for three researchers for three years are absolutely certainly not only for your travel and consumables.

As you correctly assessed, this would be very lavish and no EU project that I have ever seen gives you that level of funding. European Training Networks in particular are, as far as I have seen, generally underfunded when it comes to travel, and assume that the host institutions also chip in. Assume that there are costs calculated in here that you are not seeing, for instance institutional overheads or the costs for organizing trainings.

2. I understand that the "lack of transparency" is disappointing, but this is not your project, it's your supervisor's.

Quite frankly, PhD students generally have no detailed insights into the finances of the projects that they work on because they are also not formally responsible for them (i.e., you are probably not formally responsible for signing expenses).

Your supervisors report to their administration and to the European Union, not to you. They do not owe you an Excel file of where the project finances go. But do not worry - there is a formal audit at the end of the project which will look very carefully into where the different funds went. If it was actually grossly misspent (as opposed to spent on things that you or the other PhD students didn't want), legal issues will come up. However, I presume this will not be the case, as your supervisors are almost certainly aware of the mandatory end-of-project audit.

3. Project politics are a thing.

Your university presumably commited to sending you to certain trainings when they signed up for the network. Yes, it sucks if they are unrelated to your work, but sometimes you'll have to do things for your project that are not key to your personal research agenda. In a Training Network those are a few trainings here and there - in an IP project it could have easily been as much as 50% of your work time. Without knowing the details, I would still guess that you are complaining on a fairly high level here.

That said, your institution still screwed up.

There should be money for you to go to conferences and present your research. If the project funds do not suffice for that, they should have made sure that the university can co-finance from other sources. If they are unable to do that, they should not have hired a PhD student.

  • Agree with point 1. Those monies are not just for our travels, they do need to cover many other things too - like 5k/year tuition fees, which just in itself is a lot... This project is lavish, as it discounts travel monies for industry partners to attend said events - fair game, but I guess your last point is nailing it at the end of the day. With regards to transparency - I am leaning towards @Herman-Toothrot's answer. A simple update (for which i was asking since last june) on the budget a couple of months ago would have allowed me to plan better and avoid these kind of situations.
    – Dimitrie
    Feb 5 '18 at 16:47
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    I only partly agree with point 2, while the PhD student shouldn't care too much about finance, it should know clearly what the stipend is, how much money is available for travel, conferences, research costs, etc, because part of the PhD is to learn how to manage funding. I don't like PI that are too secretive about funding. Feb 5 '18 at 17:09
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    And further to point 2, the whole appeal to authority thing seems unnecessary and misplaced. Say the project supervisors don't "owe" the PhD student anything. So what? If the project is publicly funded and being legitimately operated they should have no qualms about sharing this information whether or not it's "owed" to anyone. Whatever personal objections they might have to doing so are surely non-relevant. If they want to be 'the boss' and entitled to order their underlings to do any arbitrary thing they like without question perhaps they should seek a private sector management job.
    – aroth
    Feb 6 '18 at 11:05
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    Generally a good answer but H2020 isn’t generally coupled to compulsory course/conference attendance in the way described by OP, somewhat contrary to what your point 3 says. And H2020 is indeed fairly generous with funding for travel and consumables. Maybe not to the tune of 1800 EUR/mo but definitely enough to fund a conference per year on top of typical consumables for an expensive project. In fact, a per month figure is misleading since the requirements will obviously vary drastically across the course of the project. 200k/3 total is plausible. Feb 6 '18 at 11:22
  • @KonradRudolph H2020 STREP or IP projects not, but Training Networks such as the one that seems to fund OP often are. And 200k/3 is factors more than what I have ever seen in per-person travel funds in any European project or network.
    – xLeitix
    Feb 6 '18 at 11:38

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