02 May 2017   |   News

The Horizon 2020 half-time score

Participants and member state governments have given their views on the EU’s R&D programme Horizon 2020 to date. The verdict: good, but in need of several big mid-course adjustments. Low success rates, lengthy proposals and lack of feedback are common complaints

At the mid-way point of Horizon 2020, the EU’s biggest ever science programme, researchers are feeling broadly positive but want to see some fundamental changes, not least an increase in the success rate for grant applications, according to a consultation published last week.

The 296 public submissions uploaded to the Commission website, and analysed by Science|Business, reflect the programme’s achievements and the associated frustrations. The evidence is intended to inform the formal review of Horizon 2020, due to be published later this year.

“Horizon 2020 is making a significant contribution to European research, innovation and job creation and its budget must be protected moving forward,” says Bristol University, while the University of Porto notes that the funding available through Horizon 2020 is higher than many researchers can access in their home countries.

For the Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres, it is, “the best framework programme yet.”

But beneath the many warm top-line comments, a range of frustrations surface, with the long odds of winning a Horizon 2020 grant mentioned in nearly all submissions.

Turkish Research and Business Organisations, an industry association, says the 13-14 per cent success rates are “demoralising”. In the same vein Belgian computer manufacturer Altreonic says “Many people call the programme a lottery.”

Commentators suggest a range of measures to tackle the problem, including more precise texts in the various calls for grant applications; fewer calls; greater use of two-stage evaluation of the calls; further restrictions on re-submitting applications; and greater encouragement for researchers to self-assess before submission.

The quality and consistency of proposal feedback is another recurring grievance, as outlined by Edinburgh University, which says, “Where a proposal which has taken many hundreds of hours’ work, costing tens of thousands of euro in time and effort from participants they should at the very least expect detailed feedback in their evaluation summary reports.”

For Maria Kandyla, a researcher in the Theoretical and Physical Chemistry Institute at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens, Horizon 2020 has been mostly negative. “There are closed circles; consortia who know each other for a long time. An unnecessarily big amount of money is spent for trips and meetings between all the partners; this money would be better spent on salaries or equipment,” she writes.

In addition it takes too long to write proposals, Kandyla complains. “I have written 60-page proposals, completely wasting my research time (compared to the 10-15 pages needed at the US National Science Foundation).”

The same complaint is repeated in several submissions. “Many Horizon 2020 proposals are tedious to write and to read,” according to Imperial College London.

New directions

Several organisations cut to the chase with their demands for the remaining three years of the programme.

Multiply the budget for the Euratom nuclear research programme by two or three, says the French Nuclear Energy Society. QED Film and Stage writes that the hundreds of millions spent on responsible research and innovation is, “Dangerous nonsense hindering science and consuming resources,” while the Hebrew University in Israel appeals for European Research Council (ERC) submission deadlines not to fall on Jewish holidays in September and October. 

Dutch electronics giant Philips says compared to universities and research institutes, industry is still not seeing the full spoils of Horizon 2020. No company is in the top 50 list of winners (Siemens is number 51). German chemical giant BASF says Horizon 2020 still feels, “overburdened by bureaucracy.”

The aircraft manufacturer Airbus wants more transparency in the selection of experts for advisory groups and evaluation panels, and at least a third of representatives in the various bodies involved in the preparation of work programmes to be from industry.

The Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation says Horizon 2020 should do less, a notion that has the support of several influential groups. For example, the German Cancer Research Centre calls for the elimination of competitions “that do not fulfil their promise, keeping only the most efficient instruments” while the German government recommends a “thorough analysis of the effectiveness” of the various Horizon 2020 funding instruments.

Research Councils UK is specific here, saying the Joint Technology Initiatives involving large consortia of companies and universities, and the FET Flagship programmes, which have given lavish funding to brain and graphene research, should be discontinued if an assessment finds that their impact has been minimal.

There are suggestions for new directions too, such as that from Olga Gkotsopoulou, a law and policy expert at the Free Software Foundation in Berlin, who says a prize should be awarded for a project that makes the best use of free software.

The National Research Council of Italy says the Commission should consider smaller European Research Council grants in the range of €200,000 - €400,000 for researchers with, “brilliant ideas but not yet an established CV.”

European Innovation Council

There are also many opinions on the new European Innovation Council (EIC), which is due to launch a pilot this autumn.

The German Rectors’ Conference says the EIC should reward ideas to applicants consisting of teams from two or more EU member states. The German government agrees with this, saying, “We do not consider that further expanding the range of funding instruments for individual applicants would generate any European added value”.

That goes against the Commission’s view on the EIC, which in its current form will offer grants to single applicants, like the SME Instrument does.

Not everyone welcomes the EIC. Sweden’s Uppsala university has this blunt assessment, “We don't appreciate new surprises during an on-going framework programme, while the budget and direction are already established, decided and agreed upon, and especially when the budget for Horizon 2020 has already been whittled down two times.

“After a thorough analysis of the EIC our conclusion is that the proposal to establish an innovation council has nothing to do with the core purposes and intentions of Horizon 2020,” the university says.

Some researchers fear the EIC will cut them out, with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory writing to say its relevance to universities and research organisations is, “unfortunately very limited.”

Rich countries still pick up most grants

Geographical concentration of funding remains a divisive issue. Five countries receive an estimated two thirds of Horizon 2020 grants. Central and Eastern European countries receive just over 4 per cent of total funding.

NCP Academy, which trains Horizon 2020’s national contact points, says that one unnamed organisation has won 56 per cent of the combined budget awarded to all EU-13 participants.

Peter Simon, a professor of chemical technology at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, complains about the struggle to keep up with richer neighbours. “In Austria, the salaries are three-five times higher than in Slovakia. From the centre of Bratislava to the Austrian border is 7 kilometres, to Vienna it is 50 kilometres. Many people work extra in Austria or the young people simply move [there],” he says.

There is also a belief that the countries which win the most funding from Brussels have undue influence. For example, the government of Estonia writes that, “There is still the perception that larger players have more influence on the development of work programmes.”

Zbigniew Błocki, a mathematician at Jagiellonian University, says, “Polish participation in this funding is about 0.9 per cent, compared to about 2.5 per cent of nominal GDP, so we in fact do much worse than even the EU-13 average.” However, the situation is not “completely tragic”, Błocki adds. Grant awards, “are in line with the fact that the R&D spending, as a portion of GDP, is about two times lower in the EU-13 than in the EU-15 countries.”

For Blocki, the share of ERC grants won by researchers in poorer EU member states, “is a complete disaster.” To date the EU-13 countries have won a measly 1.9 per cent of these, or just 126 out of the 6,687 awarded grants.

Horizon 2020 not as attractive for outsiders

International participation in Horizon 2020 needs to pick up, according to a number of submissions, with the German government saying, “Horizon 2020 has become significantly less attractive for research players from outside Europe.”

Almost 5 per cent of grant winners under the previous research programme FP7 were from countries outside of the EU, but this has fallen to only 2.2 per cent under Horizon 2020.

A change in rules, which means Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico must provide matched funding, partially explains the drop-off, but countries such as the US, Canada and Japan, operating under the same rules as before, are considerably less involved in Horizon 2020 than in FP7.

In Canada, there is some debate among government officials about continuing to support researchers who apply to Horizon 2020. Various frustrations, “prompt us to question ourselves on the efforts we must continue to invest in making Horizon 2020 known to the community and encouraging them to participate,” says the Québec Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation.

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