Horizon 2020 is good - but it could be better

22 Apr 2015 | News

Just over a year after its launch, academics and business leaders gave their verdict on the EU’s €80B research programme at a Science|Business conference.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 science programme, now a little over 15 months old, is ticking along well enough, academics and business leaders agree.

Which is not to say there are no shortcomings, or as Sergio Bertolucci, CERN’s director for research and computing put it, “It’s good but could be better.”

The average odds of getting a Horizon 2020 grant in the first 14 months of the €80 billion programme were 14.53 per cent. In comparison, in the predecessor Framework Programme 7 (FP7), success rates were around 19 to 22 per cent.

The competition is so fierce that even CERN, Europe’s largest particle physics lab, has noticed. Its success rate with Horizon 2020 is down compared to FP7. However, Bertolucci told the Science|Business Horizon 2020 conference held in Brussels last month, this is partly due to CERN’s focus on long-term big science projects. “Our research community is less likely to engage in a programme which has a [relatively] short term view,” he said.  

Roy Pennings, a managing consultant at PNO Consultants, which specialises in helping companies and universities to secure grant funding, said the number of rejected proposals in Horizon 2020 is too high and potentially excellent projects will be shelved for good.

“We did calculations on how much time and resources it takes to write up a [collaborative] proposal and the cost is between €70,000 and €100,000,” said Pennings. PNO estimates show that every year, this is eating up between €2.5 and €3 billion across Europe. For the losers, the money is “spent in vain”, he said.

There are some suggestions for rescuing proposals that just miss out. One remedy the Commission is considering is referring rejected scientists to compete in the €100 billion-plus innovation-focussed element of the EU’s development programme. But Pennings said this looks like a good idea, until someone asks why a local government in Poland would agree to co-finance a project run by researchers from somewhere like the UK or Germany.

He believes the less lucky researchers will go to find opportunities elsewhere, particularly in the US. “Then we will have to use Marie Curie [mobility] grants to get them back to Europe and this is going against what we are trying to do,” Pennings said.

A red line on red tape

The consensus is that with one or two exceptions, Horizon 2020 has generally lived up to its promise of making things simpler for scientists.

An external study recently gave top marks to the Commission website used to access information on Horizon 2020 and its competitions. “There are many grant application and funding systems, but not with the ability to manage sophisticated online evaluation and project monitoring,” the study said.

Wolfgang Burtscher, deputy director-general for research in the European Commission’s directorate for research and innovation, reported positive feedback on the introduction of two-year work programmes. “They provide businesses and universities the chance to plan a little better,” he said.  

Successful applicants get their hands on grant money quicker under Horizon 2020. In the previous programme, the average time it took to receive a grant was 330 days. “Now it’s down to 207 days,” said Burtscher.

However, Rik Torfs, rector of KU Leuven, pointed out there is still a hefty set of papers for researchers to wade through before applying. 

Burtscher acknowledged this point, saying, “How do we dare say it’s simpler when [our] guidance documents are 600 pages? I know the argument: it’s true and it’s wrong at the same time.” The problem is that all the legal minutia of grant agreements is impossible to condense, Burtscher said.

The flood of applications means some delays have been inevitable. “[With] 40,000 proposals, think about all the peer reviewers we need,” said Burtscher. The answer is 18,000, meaning the Commission does not have the time to give detailed feedback on all proposals - a familiar gripe of those receiving a rejection letter.

Broadly speaking, the variety in research calls is well-received by different research groups, though Torfs bemoaned the lack of ‘pure humanities’. “Social sciences and psychology are moving to a statistical framework,” he said. “We don’t have the heart for pure humanities anymore.” This means ceding important research ground to China and the US, he added.

Tips and tricks for more success

There has been a shift in emphasis from FP7 to Horizon 2020 that has not been so obvious for everybody, according to Pennings. Researchers need to be aware of the differences between the two programmes. Applicants should start their Horizon 2020 proposals with “the market need and the innovative aspects and then re-engineer back to the research question,” Pennings said.

This view was echoed by Viorel Peca, head of the Innovation unit at the European Commission’s digital directorate, DG Connect. “Evaluators first look at the innovation [potential] and at the entrepreneurial spirit and experience.  “[You] have to start with the innovation and then follow-up with the actual research,” he said. Just adding a few words about innovation at the end of a research proposal will not cut the mustard.

Some universities are providing advisory services to help researchers throughout the application process. The University of Luxembourg, for example, has set up the ‘Horizon 2020 incentive scheme’. This provides up to €250,000 for groups which wish to apply for Horizon 2020 funding, said Heike Scheuerpflug, manager of the university’s research office.

Under the scheme, projects are evaluated before submission, giving researchers the opportunity to make improvements. The scheme has so far approved 19 projects, of which four made it through the Horizon 2020 evaluation mill and got funded. “The return on investment is quite obvious,” Scheuerpflug said.

In addition to offering this kind of support, Penning suggested that universities should also carry out a, “tougher screening of researchers before taking the step of writing a proposal.”

Laura Castellucci, European project manager of ESADE’s Institute for Innovation and Knowledge Management, believes the Commission should also set up mechanisms of evaluation in the preparatory phase of proposal writing. Under FP7 it was possible to get feedback before submitting proposals. “It would be nice to have a similar instrument under Horizon 2020 as well,” said Castellucci.

However, Peca was not keen on the idea. “For the first call, DG Connect [did some] pre-proposal checks. But, for the second call we haven’t done it, he said. “It costs in terms of resources.”

These views were expressed at the Science|Business Horizon 2020 conference on 24 March in Brussels

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