UK and Ireland gain in Horizon 2020 top 50 performers

An analysis of the top performers in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, or H2020, shows that the UK has strengthened its position, along with the Netherlands and Ireland, compared with the Seventh Framework Programme; and Switzerland is no longer represented.

The analysis was published by Nikolaos Floratos in his report Horizon 2020 Champions, an analysis of 4,190 projects and 7,804 organisations that have been awarded H2020 grants, based on the data provided by the European Commission under CORDIS on 24 June this year. Of these, 2,023 (26%) participate in only one H2020 project.

Among the 50 top performing universities – which Floratos describes as the “Horizon 2020 Champions” as measured by the amount of money they receive from H2020 – 10 countries are represented: the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Israel, Denmark, Belgium, Finland and Italy.

By contrast, in the Seventh Framework Programme, the 50 highest performing universities came from 12 countries: the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Israel, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Finland and Austria.

Welcoming Ireland’s dramatic entry into the top 50 performing universities in H2020 – with four on the list – Irish Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation Damien English said: “I am confident that, based on the pipeline of activity, we will surpass our target of €100 million [US$110 million] for the first year of the programme. I would like to congratulate the higher education institutions, which account for over 70% of the success to date.”

Who are the 2015 champions?

The European Commission, or EC, lists Horizon 2020 projects with information on the number of H2020 contracts each organisation is participating in, the amount of euros awarded to these projects, and the number of H2020 projects they are coordinating.

Measuring how European universities are performing in Horizon 2020, University World News has extracted the universities listed in Floratos’ table of “Top 100 organisations with the largest EC contribution received”.

This list is dominated by the larger European national research organisations: Max Planck Institutes, Germany, with €333.6 million, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, or CNRS, with €121.7 million and the French Energy Commission in Paris with €75 million.

From this list University World News has selected the 50 universities receiving the largest EC contribution measured in euros and compared this with the European Commission list for the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7.

UK universities on top

University College London is on top (€49.9 million), followed by Cambridge (€44.6 million), Imperial College London (€43.8 million) and Oxford (€40.7 million).

There are 16 UK universities on the list, together receiving a total of €393 million from H2020. The eight Dutch universities together received €136 million and the four Irish universities received €62.3 million in total.

Floratos has provided interesting comparative data on the first results of H2020. One question is whether these results can tell us anything about what strategies universities have used to maximise their participation in H2020.

These 50 top performing universities have received just over €1 billion in support from the H2020 programme, which in total had distributed €7.3 billion at the time of Floratos’ study (24 June 2015).

The “Horizon 2020 Champions” on this list are from only 10 countries: the UK (16), Netherlands (8), Germany (6), Sweden (5), Ireland (4), Israel (3), Denmark (3), Belgium (2), Finland (2) and Italy (1). (Norway narrowly missed out as number 51 on the list is the University of Bergen.)

There are two project types that are giving the coordinating university a larger share of the H2020 contracts: The European Research Council, or ERC, grants, where the total grant is awarded to one institution, and collaborative projects, in which case the host institution receives money for the coordination of the project.

H2020 has seen some huge consortia, like the AtlantOS project, which has 62 participating institutions and has been given €20 million in support from H2020.

According to Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, or EUA, the fact that universities in the top 50 come from only 10 countries – and mainly from Northern and Central Europe – reflects the funding situation of universities across Europe.

The EUA has been monitoring the evolution of public funding of universities since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 in its yearly Public Funding Observatory. The new update to be released at the beginning of November shows a continuous decline in public funding in the 15 systems monitored.

Estermann told University World News: “Universities, notably in Southern and Eastern Europe, have had to face drastic funding cuts in the past few years. This also impacts on their ability to be competitive in schemes like Horizon 2020. Excellent research needs long term sustainable investment in staff and infrastructure.”

Re-oriented university strategies

Universities have therefore had to re-orient their strategies to be able to succeed in H2020, building consortia with industry and societal organisations, with the focus having changed from research to research and innovation, and where the impact of the project is essential.

Asked how University College London has prepared for participation in H2020, Michael Browne, head of European research and innovation, said its focus is on “innovation and impact driven projects”. He said these are projects that typically start at Technology Readiness Level, or TRL, 5 [out of 10] and end at or show a pathway to TRL 10, whereas the Horizon 2020 [criterion] was lifted from level 5 in FP7 to level 7.

“Innovation management – at both bid and implementation stages – plays a crucial role in this process,” he added.

FP7 champions

In the Seventh Framework Programme, or FP7’s first seven years (2007 to 2013) with 487 calls, the European Commission received more than 136,000 proposals, where more than 25,000 projects involving 130,000 participants were retained for funding, at a total of €41.7 billion.

It is of interest to compare the top 50 universities’ performances in FP7 with Floratos’ Horizon 2020 Champions’ list.

The 50 highest performing universities in FP7 based on the EC contributions they received were allocated €7.515 billion in total or on average €1.073 billion each year and came from 12 countries: the UK (14), the Netherlands (7), Germany (6), Sweden (5), Switzerland and Israel (4), Denmark (3), Belgium (2), Italy (2), Spain, Finland and Austria (one each).

The UK took the largest share of the EU portfolio: Oxford (€437 million); Cambridge (€424 million), University College London (€352 million). The total amount received during FP7 for the 14 UK universities was close to €3 billion.

The ‘FP7 champions list’ contains the larger universities in Europe, such as Manchester, Birmingham, LMU Munich, KU Leuven, Edinburgh and Copenhagen.

Some smaller universities are also represented like Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm; the University of Nottingham and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Most of the universities on the list participated in more than 200 FP7 projects and 42 of them received more than €100 million. Only three institutions in Southern Europe were represented: Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Politecnico di Milano and the University of Bologna. No French university was represented. No institution in Eastern Europe was on the list.

There appear to be significantly different ‘cultures’ between the South and North of Europe with regard to the importance of universities in building consortia for participating in European framework programmes for research, with Germany in a middle position with both a huge Max Planck coordinated portfolio and relatively strong universities.

Since FP7, Spain has dropped out of the top 50 list. According to Professor Rafael Rodriguez-Clemente of CSIC, Barcelona – whose own institution has fallen from fourth to eighth in the ranking of research institutions, with financial returns considerably decreased – the reason for the slide is the government’s 30% cut in research funding in the past few years.

“Although now it is slowly recovering, it led to a migration of the most talented young researchers toward other European countries or the US.”

Winners and losers

It is of interest to see which institutions on the 2007-2013 FP7 list are not on the H2020 list, and which new institutions have broken into the top 50 in 2015.

UK institutions have strengthened their position with three new universities on the H2020 list: Warwick, Glasgow and Cardiff universities, while King’s College London has weakened its relative position, having failed to make it into the 2015 top 50.

The four Swiss universities represented on the FP7 list – ETH Zürich, EFPL, Zürich and Geneva – all missed out in 2015. Together they received €918 million from FP7, with ETH Zürich and EPFL being among the top receivers of the European Research Council grants in FP7 with more than 80 each.

Also, the University of Bologna, the Vienna University of Technology, the Dresden University of Technology and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology have dropped out, while four Irish universities – Galway, Cork, Dublin and Trinity – have made it into the top 50.

The Technical University of Berlin, Aalto University in Finland, Bremen University in Germany and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands are newcomers on the H2020 list.

Valuable benchmarking

The ‘champions’ lists are a valuable benchmarking tool for higher education institutions with the ambition of participating actively in Horizon 2020. But there are some caveats to consider.

Peter Fisch, European Commission officer from 1994 to 2013 and head of the Unit for Evaluation and Monitoring of the Framework Programme (2006-2013), explained that comparing universities across Horizon 2020 as a whole is problematic.

This is because the roles of universities in the national science systems differ a lot – there is nothing comparable to the Max Planck Society or Fraunhofer Society in the UK, and hence British universities score better than their German counterparts.

Comparisons between FP7 and Horizon 2020 should also take into account that the strong Swiss universities did not have full access to Horizon 2020 funding for political reasons, and hence dropped from the top positions, he said.

Finally, the analysis of Horizon 2020 is based on just one round of calls, so a few lucky or unlucky bids can make a huge difference, he warned.

“Despite all this, an analysis comparing the performance of universities from a given country can be of great interest to check which strategic orientations and administrative arrangements work well – and which might need an overhaul,” he told University World News.

The next official EC Monitoring Report that will include both the FP7 programme, which will run through to the completion of projects in 2018, and the first round of Horizon 2020, is scheduled for March 2016.