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The odds of getting an EU grant may drop under Horizon 2020

Success rates may drop to 15% from 20-22%, as EU officials brace for an unprecedented flood of applicants

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BRUSSELS – A pile-up of grant applicants could turn Europe’s biggest research programme into one of the toughest-ever to get money out of. 

The European Commission on December 11 announced the first €15 billion round of grant opportunities under its massive Horizon 2020 programme – but at the same time warned that the average odds of winning a grant could drop to around 15 per cent from the 20 - 22 per cent success rate of the current - smaller - Framework Programme 7. 

“Today we’re firing the starting gun” for Horizon 2020, Máire Geoghegen-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science said at a press briefing. Only the quickest out of the blocks, and the strongest, will be chosen as winners, she said.

Several factors will sharpen the competition, Commission officials said. Tough economic conditions, particularly in southern Europe, have forced many national research councils to cut their own budgets – leaving Brussels as the only game still open for many researchers.  Also, the long political negotiations that led to Horizon 2020 have meant that, for many researchers, they haven’t had an opportunity to bid for EU money in 18 months or more. And austerity policies in many EU member-states meant the Commission’s initial budget request was trimmed by nearly 15 per cent.

All that adds up to pent-up demand for less money than expected – and the daunting prospect of a larger number of disappointed grant seekers than ever before.  For the Commission, that isn’t entirely bad news, as it would reinforce its desired image as running world-class competitions for world-class researchers and engineers. But Commission officials privately fret that too high a rejection rate will turn off many grant applicants from ever trying again – and could generate political static from the European Parliament and some member-state governments, especially in the south and east of Europe. 

A mark of prestige

EU officials are struggling now to cope with the problem. At the European Research Council, a budget of €1.66 billion has been allocated to spend on about 1,000 researchers in 2014 in a series of four separate calls for grant applications. But ERC grants have emerged, since the basic-research agency began in 2007, as the a mark of prestige for winning researchers – so much so that some universities have even made the mere application for an ERC grant (regardless of its success) a part of a researcher’s requirements for qualifying for tenure. 

By the time the new call closes next spring, it will have been 18 months since most researchers will have had an opportunity to apply at all for a grant. To cope, the ERC announced it is amending its rules to say that, if a scientist’s grant application is rejected, he or she may not be able to reapply for one or two years (depending on how the ERC reviewers graded the application) - a stern rule that, ERC officials hope, will make applicants think twice about applying and only do so if they’re confident that their proposals are winners.  

Another coping mechanism, officials said, will be trying to coordinate their grant machine with that of the member-states so that, if an applicant scored highly in the Commission review but the money ran out, they can more easily get the funding from their own governments.  That would make the EU review process a quality badge that could be used for other programmes.

Unpredictable programmes

To add to this lottery, the actual success rate will vary wildly from one part of the programme to another. For instance,  while the ERC is expected to be among the toughest funders inside Horizon 2020, other parts of the programme – such as those intended to build European competitiveness in key technologies or solve some of society’s biggest problems in healthcare or climate control – could well end up being easier. And other parts of the programme are unpredictable: For instance, the Parliament required that the EU increase its overall funding of small and medium-sized companies to about €8.5 billion during the seven-year course of Horizon 2020 – but as much of that money will go to new and untried initiatives it’s uncertain how hard or easy it could end up being for a small company to walk away with the money. 

Already, some university technology transfer officers around Europe fret that their communities of spin-out companies – logical applicants for the money – could turn their discontent on their own universities if they try and fail for the EU money.

Gamesmanship aside, however, there’s little doubt that Horizon 2020 is a watershed in EU commitment to funding research and innovation. The key features, compared to prior programmes, include:

Simplification

The Commission is promising no more than eight months from application to grant – down from an average of more than a year in the past; and in some parts of the programme it is pledging a six-month turnaround. That goes with a simpler method of accounting for the grants: Reimbursement of 100 per cent of the eligible ‘direct’ costs of performing research (or 70 per cent in closer to market activities), plus a flat supplement of 25 per cent for indirect costs like electricity and lab maintenance.  In the past, project accounting had developed into an arcane art form of its own, on which scores of consultants have made a living advising clients how to stay out of trouble from the dreaded EU auditors. The Commissioner also promised the auditors would be more targeted in their inquiries – but she did not elaborate.

Budget

Commission grumbling aside, the fact is that the overall seven-year budget for Horizon 2020 is a lot bigger than that of its predecessor; the problem is simply that annual funding under the prior FP7 programme had risen steadily to a peak in 2012 and 2013 – and 2014 will start slower as the bureaucratic machine gets into gear. In 2011 figures, the overall seven-year budget will be €70.2 billion; in nominal euros, this looks like €79 billion. That’s up from about €55 billion, comparing like programme for like, during the prior, 2007-2013 plan. The slow start of Horizon 2020 is reflected in the budget of the first calls, with only 19 per cent of the total budget (€15 billion) to be spent over 2014 and 2015, 28 per cent of the programme’s duration. 

Grand Challenges

New in Horizon 2020 will be an explicit attempt by the EU to target much of its research funding on solving politically important problems – such as managing climate change, securing energy supply, or caring for an ageing European population. In the first year, €2.8 billion out of €8.7 billion in total Horizon 2020 grants will go to these grand challenges.

Industrial leadership and innovation

Horizon 2020 will see a move away from basic research towards a new emphasis on market-facing innovation in a bid to boost Europe’s industrial competiveness, “More money than ever before will be available for testing, prototyping, demonstration and pilot-type activities, and for business-driven R&D,” said Geoghegan-Quinn at yesterday’s launch. Activities will be focused on a number of emerging sectors, including information and communications technologies, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, robotics, advanced manufacturing, and space.

Focus on SMEs

€500 million will be earmarked over the next two years to a new dedicated instrument for innovative SMEs. This bottom-up initiative, which will receive almost €3 billion throughout the seven year programme, will run open calls, divided into three phases: concept and feasibility assessment; demonstration, market replication, and R&D; and commercialisation. Another novelty of the programme is that SMEs can now apply for EU funding alone, rather than being part of a consortium, and combined with a reduced time to grant of six months, it is hoped that this will make Horizon 2020 significantly more attractive to small businesses.


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Related subjects: Horizon 2020