Horizon 2020 low success rates a ‘very sad story’, says top research administrator

23 Sep 2015 | News

The chance of winning a research grant is stuck between 12% and 14%, with many excellent proposals being rejected, Robert-Jan Smits told MEPs this week

The small odds of winning a grant under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme is “a very sad story at the moment,” the European Commission’s Director-General for Research and Innovation, Robert-Jan Smits, told MEPs this week.

“We are flooded with proposals and success rates are down to between 12 and 14 per cent,” said Smits, presenting some of the first year take-aways from the programme to members of the European Parliament’s industry and research committee on Monday. “We have to reject far too many excellent proposals.”

Scientists’ chances in the €77 billion competition have shrunk from the 19 to 21 per cent odds in Horizon 2020’s predecessor, the Seventh Framework Programme, which ran from 2007 and 2013.

Horizon 2020 is “unbelievably popular,” said Smits. “We’ve received 65,000 proposals.”

Some of the programme’s research fields are simply overwhelmed with applications. For example, the ‘Fast Track to Innovation’ scheme, which runs a permanently open competition, gives researchers a scanty one-in-sixteen chance of funding: of the 264 proposals received by the Commission, only 16 will be selected.

“The success rate means, generally speaking, that 86 out of every 100 scientists [who apply] are unhappy,” observed Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German MEP. “It seems our scientists are increasingly employed to write these proposals and spend less [time] doing research.”

Smits attributed part of the problem to the budget. “It proves one thing, which is hard to admit: the Parliament was right when [it] said the budget should be €100 billion [instead of] €80 billion,” he said.

Balancing out his concerns, Smits said he was receiving plenty of positive comments about the programme. 

“The biggest success of Horizon 2020 is its simplification agenda,” he said. “It’s been a break with the past.” Although the impression of EU rules and procedures as notoriously fussy remains for some, Smits praised the programme’s vastly improved IT structure.

Likewise, new features such as the grouping of social science and humanities competitions under the programme’s ‘grand societal challenges’ banner, which is seen as more intuitive, and the non-prescriptive, open-ended nature of calls, he said.  

“We’re over-reaching on our targets for small businesses,” Smits reported. Horizon 2020 was approved in 2013 on condition that 20 per cent of the budget must go to SMEs. “We are actually at 23 per cent,” said Smits. 

In the energy research field too, the Commission is exceeding its commitment to spend 85 per cent of its cash on renewables research, with the figure standing at 90 per cent.

And Smits said he remains happy with the performance of the European Research Council (ERC), the Commission’s frontier-science agency saying it is, “one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

Quizzed on the ‘European Innovation Council’, which research commissioner Carlos Moedas has billed as a sort of an ERC for innovators, Smits said there was nothing new to relate, with fresh details not expected until early next year.

Smits agreed with Henkel on the need to pare back the time researchers spend on administration. “If we [just] let our researchers develop research proposals, it’s a waste of potential,” he said.

He disagreed, however, with any inference that Horizon 2020 procedures are too taxing. “Many people say, ‘look at how they do it in the US’ for a good example. Well, according to recent data, 42 per cent of a researcher’s time there is spent on reporting and applying for funding.”

Belgian MEP Philippe De Backer quizzed Smits on Horizon 2020’s open-ended calls, saying it is one of the prime causes of the uptick in proposals. Smits acknowledged there was likely some truth to this, but noted, “it is what [researchers] asked us for.”

The job of making the programme more amenable to scientists is continuing, Smits added. His department is preparing an online survey, which will gather views on features that can be made simpler.

Problems with international partners

Grants to non-EU countries have dropped under Horizon 2020, so one of Smits’ goals is to court more industrialised countries with funding of their own to bring to the table. “We should be linking up with brilliant people from China and the US,” he said.

His department is running a PR offensive in the US entitled ‘Destination Europe’, with promotional events earmarked for cities including Chicago, Boston and San Jose. “We are shopping for talent and it’s working quite well,” he added.

On research cooperation with Switzerland, Smits conceded it remains “hampered”. Following a controversial vote to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens last February, Swiss researchers are only permitted to apply for a handful of programmes under Horizon 2020. Full re-entry is ruled out until the Swiss government comes up with a new agreement on the free movement of persons.

Meanwhile, in the case of Russia, all diplomatic contact remains at a “low profile”, Smits said. Despite a particularly icy spell in relations between Europe and Russia, which dates back to the latter’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine last year, Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas has previously said the country remains a welcome participant in Horizon 2020.  

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up