Horizon 2020: Surge in applications but low success rate

Up to the end of February 2015, after 14 months, Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation 2014-20, had received 45,000 applications. This represents a large surge in the number of applications.

The success rate for applications was 14% to 15% on average, while in Framework Programme 7 (2007-13), the predecessor of Horizon 2020, the success rate was between 19% and 22%. In some of the sub-programmes of Horizon 2020, notably in the Health Sciences and in Future and Emerging Technologies, or ‘FET Open’, the success rate for applications was down to between 2% and 3%.

There was an equally substantial increase in applications to the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, or MSCA, which provides grants for researchers and encourages mobility. MSCA is allocated €6.8 billion (US$7.6 billion) in the Horizon 2020 programme and is one of the prioritised programmes.

The European Parliament recently decided that the MSCA should not be included when cuts are made to Horizon 2020 to divert funding to a new European Fund for Strategic Investments, or EFSI, which is intended to create jobs and growth.

In the first rounds of the MSCA’s Innovative Training Networks for support of early stage researchers, mostly doctorate candidates, the competition was steep. In 2014, a total of 1,161 submissions were sent in and 121 (9.4%) of these were successful. In 2015, a total of 1,563 applications were filed with the EU Commission – a 35% increase – and 106 (6.3 %) of these were placed on the A-list for funding earlier this year.

This means that out of 2,724 applications for Innovative Training Networks, or ITN, consortia in Horizon 2020 so far, only 227 were funded.

Time needed to prepare proposals

The working out of a five to 10 participant consortium exchanging up to 15 early stage researchers, where each young researcher has an individual training programme involving secondments, laboratory work, cross-border mobility and joint supervision between academic and industry supervisors, is complex. It involves many people and a coordinator who is required to manage and create enthusiasm for the project.

The time needed to prepare a competitive proposal is dependent on many factors. But some 50 to 100 hours of the coordinator’s time is a minimum estimate. With almost 3,000 people having coordinated an ITN project up to this point in Horizon 2020, and with up to more than 10 times as many participating in the consortium and including all supporting staff, the workload involved in making all these applications is huge.

MSCA is certainly going to have a lasting impact on doctoral training in Europe – and beyond as third countries are now eligible and encouraged to participate.

With support for the ITNs being worth approximately €4 million per consortium, universities across Europe are now examining the very detailed feedback from the evaluation. The European Commission has sharpened up the evaluation procedure significantly, giving the applicant more detailed comments with up to 30 bullet points each on positive and negative aspects of the project application.

This provides the applicants with good grounds for amending and re-submitting their applications and is therefore further contributing to the increased rate of competition.

ITN project proposals may take one of three forms: European Training Networks or ETN, European Joint Doctorates or EJD, and European Industrial Doctorates or EID, with the ETN part counting for more than 80% of the budget in each round.

There are eight subject panels in the ETN-mode: chemistry, economics, engineering or information science, environment or geoscience, life sciences, mathematics, physics and social sciences or humanities.

The number of applications to each mode and each thematic panel varies significantly, which means that some panels only have very few that succeed, while the more popular panels have more successes.

Evaluation of proposals

The evaluation of ITN proposals is based on three scores: Excellence counts for 50% of the total score, impact for 30% and implementation for 20%.

The score for ‘excellence’ combines the research standing with the training component and explicitly lists which criteria are used for assessing these. With the ‘impact’ score, evaluators are measuring to what degree the impact of the proposal is contributing to the strengthening of European innovation. And ‘implementation’ is measuring the robustness of both the research and training programmes of the ITN, how good the management structures of the programme are and how risk factors are accounted for.

More attention is also being paid to how well thought through the intellectual property rights, or IPR, management of the ITN consortium is. It now needs to be more than just a standard outline of IPR measures and must be specific to the expected outcomes of the ITN consortium.

The score in each of these parameters is ranked from 1 to 5. Scoring 5 on all three gives a 100% total score, while scoring 4 on all three gives 80%. A score in the 90% band is needed to get a contract. But there are variations, both over time between the 2014 and 2015 application rounds and between the panels.

Essential elements

The following elements are essential for success. It is important to score high on the ‘excellence’ component – the project has to be moving beyond state-of-the-art and the training component has to be innovative.

Every point listed in the impact and implementation components should be covered in the application. Risk management, intellectual property rights and gender issues should each be addressed. The participation of members in the consortium from industry should be on an equal footing with the academic participants; window dressing will not work.

The number of proposals selected in each panel varies considerably, the largest being in life sciences and engineering and information science. The third largest panel successes are in European Industrial Doctorates with 15 consortia selected in 2015.

The fourth largest panel measured by number of successes is environment and geoscience (11), while economics and mathematics only had one successful project selected each. The social sciences and humanities were awarded seven contracts in 2015.


In 2015 the evaluators have given much more detailed comments in their feedback to applicants compared to earlier years, listing up to 15 positive and negative comments for each application, before concluding in a separate total score.

These comments are valuable input for re-submissions of these applications, which now seems to be on the rise. In 2015, 44% of the total number of applications were re-submissions, and among the 106 succeeding consortia, 57% had applied before. In 2014, 27.5% of applications were re-submissions, and 47% of those succeeding had applied before.

An example of such a comment under the ‘excellence’ component is: “The scientific training of all ESRs [early stage researchers] is well structured and incorporates strengths such as inter-sectoral throughput, access to unique technology platforms in world-class institutions and many others.”

An example of a comment under the ‘impact’ component: “The high-level interaction between industry and academia in this ITN, as well as the mobility of researchers for secondments or for network-wide training events will provide a valuable asset in structuring European innovation.”

And a comment on ‘implementation’: “The non-academic partners have the relevant facilities, experience and expertise to host ESRs”.

The consortia more and more are multi-disciplinary. One of the applicants wrote: “The proposal covers a range of disciplines and specialist skills in areas such as chemistry, biomaterials science, computational biology, surgery and bioinformatics.”

The Community Research and Development Information Service, or CORDIS, the European Commission database now contains 4,000 Horizon 2020 projects, with information on consortia partners and distribution of the Horizon 2020 allocation across the partners.

Some examples indicate the very specialised thematic areas of those ITN networks awarded contracts: Comments

Thomas Jørgensen of the European University Association, or EUA, Council for Doctoral Education, said to University World News:

"The MSCA ITNs are a very powerful tool at the European level as a benchmark for excellent doctoral programmes. Although the funding is limited, team leaders setting up these programmes attain an understanding of criteria for good doctoral education already at the application stage, which is a good thing.”

Dr Jennifer Brennan, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions National Contact Point at the Irish Universities Association, told University World News:

"In recent years, we have seen a shift away from the master-apprentice model of doctoral studies to a more fully-rounded doctoral training model, involving industry and other societal actors and preparing researchers for a wide range of careers.

"MSCA ITN is leading the way in implementing this model at European level, putting into practice the EU Principles for Innovative Doctoral Training, and encouraging European countries to mainstream this new doctoral training model into their own systems."

Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy director of the Division of Research Management at the University of Bergen, Norway, having worked with the European Union research programmes since 1993. He writes regularly for University World News.