09.05.2019by Barbara Terhal

European affairs

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by Barbara Terhal

Recently I had to deal with some bureaucratic business involving a European grant. It concerned the transfer of this grant from one academic institution to another in the form of an amendment.
The transfer had to take place through the interaction of a variety of people, project managers, scientists, upper- and lower-level secretaries, in a EU web portal.
The portal is somewhat like a virtual castle in which one occasionally discovers a door to a hidden room. Once open, the hidden room turns out to give access to new functions and role play, inviting to dress-up and bal masqué, going far beyond the promise of the

But before I say more, let’s start at the beginning, namely the generation of access via a password.
I usually pick obscene and angry passwords since they are most easily remembered, in particular in the state of mind with which one enters the portal.
I am at my 3rd p-word now, having messed up the management of the two previous ones.
For the grant transfer we were assigned an extra person called Vladimir. Vladimir would come on top of our regular EU project officer called Nouchine.

In real life Nouchine is most likely a petite woman of Algerian descent. Someone whose native language is French, but you would not be able to tell that from her emails.
Vladimir might be Bulgarian.
Whereas Nouchine exudes a certain friendliness, Vladimir is mostly curt and precise in his communications.

He does not seem to mind when the process drags on. He is dealing, simultaneously, with many such protracted processes and has developed a certain immunity towards delay.

However, we and the support staff (mostly women) at the university are not yet used to the castle’s trapdoors and hidden vaults. New players can be added to play legal, financial or simple ‘helper’ roles, at least when they are not on vacation or ultra-pregnant, and only when they appear in the drop-down menu. If they do not appear in the menu, one has to send an email or call or find someone else who is in the menu, and perhaps what is most important not to forget is that any one person can play at most two roles.

So, if I assign the role of primary project clown to the same person twice, that person can no longer be the legal signatory even once, even though he has been studying for many years on how to click legal buttons and sits ready in his office to do so a few more times.

There is also Andrea, our local angel, who hovers over the process, the mishap, the failures, the overworked grants department, putting on bandages and nudging people to take a step forward. Recently, she emailed from her vacation in Romania, but she may not actually hail from there.

Sarah sits at the bottom of the contributing personnel stack, right where the action is supposed to take place. Right now, she is probably happy to be changing baby diapers on her maternity leave.

Every time she entered the portal, she seemed like a doe caught in the headlights, overwhelmed by a sense of not knowing the way around the staircases and the to-be-uploaded-documents by her and by her only. Why had she accepted this job at the university, only to get calls or emails from rude scientists who needed her immediate action on something she was clueless about.
After six months we got the documents together, even the rectors agreed, but we made 1 mistake.
Ilse, tall and competent Dutch project manager, might have mentioned it to me: a little inconsistency between two documents. I had dismissed it casually: no one checks all numbers, do I spend 10 or 50 or 241% of my time on this grant. I have no idea, I write about it.
But Vladimir noticed and asked us to withdraw the amendment.

Now, you can do many things in the portal like upload nude pictures or talk to your project officer about movies seen on Netflix, but you cannot withdraw a document that has been swallowed by EU bureaucracy.

No one knows where it is or how to retrieve it, once it has entered the EU guts.
Even Andrea, usually the epitome of sensibility, was speechless. Nouchine excused herself. Ilse felt guilty and angry with Vladimir as it might have been her fault. So after Vladimir asked Ilse and Ilse asked Andrea, and Andrea asked me, I decided to ask Vladimir. He would know best.

He would be able to stick his hand down deep into the trough, retrieve the papers allowing us to correct and resubmit to the beast. Vladimir, please!!

I am still waiting for his answer. He says he is checking with the IT team. While we wait, we should perhaps assign each other some more roles (“Good day, Prince of Finance!”, “Salute to you, Vice-Roy Coordinator!”) and have some fun.

I had started the process in January, thinking that it might require a few months. It is June now and once Vlad gets us going again and we resubmit, the EU itself still has to regurgitate the documents and signatures for at least two months.

Only then, inshallah, can we do our science again.


Barbara Terhal is currently Professor at the EEMCS Department at the TU Delft and research staff member at QuTech. As a theorist she has been trying to get people to build quantum computers since her PhD in 1999 with mixed results so far. She believes QuTech is the place to be and the team to beat. In her spare time she likes poetry, distinguishing one bird song from another or cooking up a storm at 8.00 am on Sunday morning.

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