How COST puts money into connecting researchers across Europe

11 Apr 2024 | News

COST Actions invite researchers to set up networking projects – and get a foot in the door at Horizon Europe. Current call is open until 23 October

In February and March 2024, to better support this new generation of science communicators, COST organised two dedicated workshops on ‘How to make the most of communication for your COST Action’. Photo credits: European Cooperation in Science & Technology (COST)

Networking is good for science. It helps researchers connect and boost the impact of their research. That’s why COST is accepting proposals for its next set of Actions networking projects, until 23 October.

With the help COST’s funding – of an average €150,000 a year – researchers can connect with counterparts across Europe and increase the impact of their research.

COST, or European Cooperation in Science and Technology, funds researcher networking through the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme. But it’s a separate entity from the rest of the programme, in governance and philosophy. COST pre-dates EU’s research frameworks by a decade, having formally launched in 1971.

“The logic of COST is very different and requires a very different implementation process. The idea is that the COST Actions are open and bottom-up spaces and networks where researchers can come together,” says Elwin Reimink, data and impact analysis adviser at COST Association.

It’s designed to have a low entry barrier with a simple application form ensuring inclusiveness. This helps to open COST to different types of researchers, not just those who know how Horizon Europe works.

Separate but closely intertwined, COST acts as a pre-portal to Horizon Europe by connecting and training researchers in skills such as leadership and communication, all prerequisites for participating in the EU research framework. Researchers who get COST backing have a 37% success rate in applying for Horizon Europe grants, significantly higher than the overall success rate of 15.9%.

The impact on success rates was even more stark in the previous EU framework programme. In Horizon 2020, proposals submitted from COST Actions had a 39% success rate compared to the average rate of 12.2%. The funding given to these spin-off projects amounted to €2.6 billion.

What does COST do?infographic 

COST Actions aren’t regular research projects. They fund networking activities in different areas of science. Activities include events, short-term scientific missions, training schools and communication activities for the participants.

The Actions vary in size, starting with at least 7 peers but reaching 100 researchers and more. They’re open to researchers from all kinds of institutions and all scientific fields – although natural sciences seem to do better than others, securing around 50% of funding in the last two years.

And it’s not only about money. COST Academy as well as the association’s science advisers are there to help guide the grantees. “To ensure they can work well as a group, or a lose consortium, we give what we call stewardship,” says Reimink.

The science officers work with the Action Chairs who lead the networks to make sure they have the right skills and equipment. Meanwhile, the COST Academy provides training on leadership skills, network management, effective communication, and other skills that are key to success. It’s an extra level of service, as Reimink puts it.

Who is it for?

It’s for all researchers who believe they can benefit from networking in their field. Many that apply are young researchers at the start of their careers. Most are new to EU framework programmes. But there’s no one-size-fits-all, nor is it just an entry point for Horizon Europe: for example, those already participating in other parts of Horizon Europe can look to expand their networks.

The most important aspect of the application is the idea. “You need to make a convincing argument that the networking is not already done and will lead to impact,” says Reimink. “If it’s an innovative idea and has a strong promise, it has a chance.”

Applicants don’t need a step-by-step plan on what they’re going to use the grant for, but rather a convincing argument that their field of research can benefit from networking across Europe.

Because of this, the Actions are often interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary, bringing together researchers from different fields to address research questions. Other Actions bridge connections in emerging fields of science.

Who the applicants are ultimately doesn’t matter. COST uses double blind evaluation, meaning evaluators don’t know who the applicants are at either stage of the assessment.

How much funding can you get and how?

Applying for COST funding is easy. You don’t need too much experience or too much support to fill out the 15 page single-stage application.  

If successful, each group then gets an estimated €125,000 in its first year and an average of €150,000 per year for the next three years.

The application is led by a main proposer and includes at least seven peers. When the group gets the funding, COST Association helps them set up the implementation of the project, unless they already have their own action plan.

And once it’s set up, a network can keep growing, with new researchers and institutions joining. This is unlike other EU research grants.

The partner mix is also up to the researchers to decide. Some groups may be industry heavy. Others may be dominated by researchers from academia. Some are interdisciplinary. Others concentrate on one emerging field. It’s all bottom-up.

There is one clear rule: at the proposal stage, at least half the countries represented in the proposal must be an inclusion-targeted country. The inclusion countries are the ones that typically are less represented in projects. Think Widening countries. Here’s a map showing which countries these are.

Otherwise, the call is open to researchers from Horizon Europe countries and countries that have been associated to EU’s framework programmes at least twice. UK and Switzerland are members.

Researchers from other countries can take part if they find other sources of funding to cover costs.

Track record

In the last two years, COST funded 70 Actions annually. And it’s a diverse bunch of projects. In 2023, half of the projects were interdisciplinary, involving at least two different fields of science.

Last year, 19% of main proposers were young researchers, 47% of main proposers were women, 26% of main proposers came from inclusiveness target countries and 66% of proposals featured industry participants.

The biggest number of actions, 49%, were in natural sciences fields, followed by 27% in social sciences, 27% in engineering and technology, 26% in agricultural sciences, 20% in medical and health sciences, and 19% in humanities.

The networks are big. In the 2023, COST received 522 submission involving 21,286 proposers. That's 43 research per proposed network on average.

The success rate isn’t too promising at 18.7%, up from 17.4% in 2022. But on the bright side, application isn’t as demanding as the rest of Horizon Europe.  

The geographical spread of participants is even, compared to the rest of Horizon Europe. This is by design. “There’s a geographical disbalance in Horizon Europe. What you see in COST is that between countries, there’s far more balance,” says Reimink.

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