Concern over low success rate of Horizon 2020 bids

The drop in the success rate of universities bidding for Horizon 2020 funding is being driven by increased demand from universities suffering from austerity programmes, according to the European University Association, or EUA.

Of nearly 73,000 applications during the first 18 months of Horizon 2020, the average success rate was 12.9%, down from 18.5% in the previous Framework Programme 7, with some sub-programmes reporting success rates well below 10%.

Even if a large number of universities now participate in Horizon 2020, the relative proportion of funding for universities is estimated to have sunk from about 44% in Framework Programme 7, to 36% in Horizon 2020.

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the EUA, pointed to the link with national funding trends: “As we know from the EUA’s Public Funding Observatory, many systems have been suffering from severe cuts in public funding over the past years. Therefore more and more universities look for European Union funding and thus the success rate goes down.”

The problem is being exacerbated by the switching of €2.2 billion (US$2.5 billion) from the Horizon 2020 programme into the European Fund for Strategic Investments, the EUA said last week.

“In times of national budget cuts Europe needs to fund universities through grants like Horizon 2020 and not divert public money to debt financing mechanisms,” Estermann said at the meeting.

Success rate is a problem

The issue was raised on 25 September when Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for research, science and innovation, and the leadership team of his directorate came together to listen to key stakeholders on the simplification of Horizon 2020.

“Horizon 2020 is attracting the best, and the request for funding is seven times higher than the budget,” Moedas said. “We have a problem with the success rate going down. People are spending time and hours [on proposals] and we will have to look carefully at this.”

The high rate of competition among Horizon 2020 bidders was also highlighted by the European Commission’s director-general for research and innovation, Robert Jan Smits, when he addressed the European Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee on 21 September, Science Business has reported.

Smits said the problem was caused partly by the size of 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, according to Science Business.

“It seems our scientists are increasingly employed to write these proposals and spend less [time] doing research,” German MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel added.

As of 15 September, some 72,919 applications had been received by Horizon 2020, requesting €152 billion in support, and 5,907 projects had been selected.

The EU Commission has published a list of the results of the first call for proposals 2014-15, updated to July 2015, in which €7.36 billion has been distributed to 7,964 participating organisations.

Some 85% of the funding has been awarded to programmes in seven countries: Germany, UK, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium.

In most cases (74%), the participating organisations are only involved in one project, but 12% are involved in two projects, 7% in three to four projects and another 7% in five or more projects.

The institution participating in the most Horizon 2020 projects was the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, or CNRS, in France (207 projects), followed by Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft with 162 and Oxford University with 111. The Atomic Energy Commission in Paris had 104, and the Spanish National Research Council, or CSIC, and Copenhagen University each held 94 contracts, while University College London and Imperial College London each held 93 contracts.

Of the 20 best performing universities measured by the number of contracts they participate in, nine are in the UK, three in the Netherlands, two each in Belgium and Denmark and one each in Sweden, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

Sharpening strategies

European universities are now sharpening their strategies in an attempt to succeed in the face of a rising proportion of rejections. Nordic universities are in particular looking at ways to increase their participation in collaborative projects with industry.

For a number of Nordic universities participation in Horizon 2020 is heavily skewed towards projects in the European Research Council, or ERC, programme. For instance, 71% of the University of Oslo’s Horizon 2020 portfolio is in the ERC programme, for the University of Bergen the share is 52%, for Aalto University in Finland it is 48%, Helsinki University 44%, Copenhagen University 40%, and Norwegian University of Science and Technology 32%.