In the UK, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 entitles members of the public to request information held by public authorities, who are under an obligation to publish it. The principle behind this is that everyone has a right to access official information, and it should only be kept private with good reason and when permissible under the Act. However, as an SME, this can naturally lead to the concern that your confidential information may be exposed when applying for funding.
A business owner recently approached EEN regarding their concern that following their successful Horizon 2020 proposal, an FOI request lodged by a third party might lead to them having to release commercially sensitive information. EEN supports clients with their applications and general enquiries and cooperates with National Contact Points (NCPs) to help clients keep their Intellectual Property safe. We worked together with Stephan Alexander, the Horizon 2020 Legal and Financial NCP, to find out what information can be subject to an FOI request.
So what are the FOI rules at a European level when you apply for EU funding?
The European Union equivalent to the FOI Act is Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. The scope of this public access is not unlimited, and the European Court of Justice has recognised general presumptions of non-accessibility to certain types of documents, such as documents on state aid, merger investigations and bids by tenderers.
The relevant information for you here is an exception specified in the regulation, in Article 4.2:
The institutions shall refuse access to a document where disclosure would undermine the protection of:
- commercial interests of a natural or legal person, including intellectual property,
- court proceedings and legal advice,
- the purpose of inspections, investigations and audits,
unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure.
You are required to provide a public summary of your project, but this need not include confidential or commercially sensitive information. Any such information in the body of the application will not be available for public scrutiny and not subject to any FOI request received.
Therefore you can be confident that when applying for EU funding you are not compromising your business’ confidentiality.
With the UK guaranteeing to underwrite Horizon 2020 funding for applications submitted before it exits the EU, even if approved after exit, there is little to stop you from applying for more R&D funding.