Why Irish eyes are smiling in Horizon 2020

One of the surprise success stories in the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme this year was the entry of four Irish universities into the list of the 50 top-performing universities. But how did they do it?

As reported in a University World News analysis last week, the NUI Galway was Ireland’s highest on the list at number 25, along with University College Cork (30th); University College Dublin (31st) and Trinity College Dublin (38th).

Together they received contracts worth €62 million (US$66.6 million) from Horizon 2020, or H2020, when the decisions on funding were taken on 24 June this year. Yet none of the four was listed among the 50 high-performing universities in the Seventh Framework Programme (2007-13), or FP7.

What lies behind this collective leap forward? Is it the result of a national mobilisation towards H2020? What strategies have been used by the universities and how do they interact with other actors in the competition for increased participation in European Union research? What tools have they used?

The answer can be found at several levels when looking at the organisations that set the Irish science policy agenda. Our focus here is the role of universities in the “application engine for Horizon 2020” – can the Irish case give some transferable clues as to which university strategies function better in Horizon 2020, which is not mainly a research frontier but a research innovation grand project?

Key role for universities

Organisations in Ireland participate in 318 contracts in H2020, as listed in the E-CORDA database at the end of July 2015. Of the 318, 164 contracts or 52% are with Irish universities. The comparable percentage was 26% for Norway, 31% for Finland, 30% for Germany, 49% for Sweden, 55% for Denmark and 40% for the Netherlands.

It is therefore obvious that universities play a more important role in securing H2020 contracts in Ireland, Sweden and Denmark compared to Norway, Germany and the Netherlands.

Irish universities chalked up a remarkable success in the European Research Council, or ERC, programme in 2014 – a part of the pillar "excellent science" that was significantly expanded in H2020 – notably in the starting grant category. Irish institutions obtained 18 ERC grants in 2014 worth more than €30 million.

Ten of these were starting grants, seven consolidator grants and one advanced grant was awarded to Poul Holm, professor of environmental history at Trinity College Dublin for a project entitled “Assessing and synthesising the dynamics and significance of the North Atlantic fish revolution in the 1500s and 1600s that reshaped alignments in economic power, demography and politics”.

In addition, four ERC proof-of-concept contracts were awarded to Irish researchers who had already been awarded ERC grants allowing them to develop their ideas in commercial directions.

In the starting grant category in 2014, Ireland ranked second among the EU-28 countries, up from 20th in FP7.

Irish universities coordinate several large H2020 collaborative projects. University College Cork coordinates “MARIBE – Marine Investment for the Blue Economy: Unlocking the potential of our seas” with sub-projects in marine renewable energy, aquaculture, marine biotechnology and seabed mining also aiming at facilitating the development of business opportunities.

Cork coordinates a large energy project in H2020: “Energy System Transition through Stakeholder Action, Education and Skills Development”, which was awarded €3.46 million for mapping out the energy transition in several European communities.

Another example of successful university-industry collaboration is the involvement of University College Dublin as a lead academic partner in the RealValue project. Led by Irish multinational company Glen Dimplex, and with a consortium encompassing the entire energy supply chain, the €12 million project (with €7.2 million to the Irish partners) is directed at improving efficiency and value across the European energy market through the use of advanced information and communications technology, or ICT.

Trinity College Dublin coordinates “Aligned, Quality-centric Software and Data Engineering”, an ICT project in H2020 awarded €4 million, with universities and companies in Leipzig, Oxford, Austria and Poland, and also coordinates the SWIMing project – Semantic Web for Information Modelling in Energy Efficient Buildings – a project funded under the Energy Efficient Buildings call, which includes a national collaboration with the Tyndall National Institute in Cork.

New national ambition

The total EU contribution to Irish research was €621.46 million and the total number of participants in FP7 was 1,939 as of 2014. In terms of budget shares, Ireland ranked 13th of all 28 EU states.The total EU contribution to Irish research was €621.46 million and the total number of participants in FP7 was 1,939 as of 2014. In terms of budget shares, Ireland ranked 13th of all 28 EU states.

Over recent years, several universities have worked out research strategies focused on creating centres of excellence for research. These are based on establishing a critical mass of expertise that closely aligns with key government and EU policies.

These strategies included the National Research Prioritisation Exercise: First Progress Report (June 2014); the Horizon 2020: Sustaining Excellence in University Research and Innovation report (December 2013); and the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014-2020) – Ireland’s Strategy and Target for Participation Report (December 2013).

The Science Foundation Ireland, or SFI, has introduced an “SFI ERC Support Programme” to increase the participation of Irish-based researchers in all ERC schemes and to recruit excellent ERC-funded researchers to Irish host institutions. It provides awardees from the 2014 ERC call, where the awardee is already with an Irish host institution with an additional amount equivalent to 20% of the ERC award, up to a maximum of €300,000; and provides awardees from the 2015 ERC call, where the awardee is already with an Irish host institution, with up to €150,000.

Researchers from any year who have been recruited to work in an Irish host institution who already hold an ERC award can receive up to €1 million funding through the scheme.

Dr Michael Ryan, head of EU affairs at the Science Foundation Ireland, told University World News that in Ireland, as indeed in a number of member states, the recognisable wins come from the ERC and coordinating large projects, the latter of which are off the back of large bids and are typically co-funded bids, which is a key element.

“In Science Foundation Ireland we put in place, a few years ago, two key mechanisms aligned to ERC: the ‘ERC Support Programme’ and the ‘ERC Development Programme’ – both of which were put in place to incentivise the research community to apply to ERC.

“The former provides additional overhead to the host university/research project officer, or RPO, to assist ERC awardees who have won their award either in Ireland or have been recently recruited to Ireland. The latter is for applicants to ERC who were deemed fundable by the ERC but were not funded (usually due to a lack of available funds).

“We will fund a shortened version of the ERC application – focusing on addressing reviewer comments – on the condition that the applicant reapplies. We are now seeing the labours of this strategy bear fruit.”

Centres of excellence as drivers

Ryan said SFI has invested, since 2012, significant funding into 12 Research Centres based within various universities/RPOs. The Research Centres are also co-funded by industry – a condition of receiving exchequer funding.

“We have placed significant Horizon 2020 [duties] on these centres,” Ryan says. “We have installed within each of them a dedicated EU coordination manager tasked with identifying opportunities for influencing and for application within Horizon 2020 and the European Commission. Each centre has strict metrics that they must meet off the back of a number of KPIs [key performance indicators].

“Each of the centres is a collaboration of expertise across multiple universities/RPOs and industry.”

In October 2014, the Minister of Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English, launched a new national initiative to identify large-scale EU funding that will give big wins for Ireland.

He established a dedicated team of 15 senior scientists headed by Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Mark Ferguson of SFI and set an ambitious national target of €1.25 billion in EU funding from H2020.

The High Level Group for Horizon 2020 is tasked with monitoring progress under the framework programme and consists of representatives across all funding agencies and government departments. An offshoot of this group is the Strategic Research Proposals Group, consisting of a tighter group of agencies and tasked with identifying potential larger bids that are of strategic importance where Ireland can promote and develop its product offering.

“This grouping has proved very effective,” Ryan says, “as it acts as a platform to bring industry and academia and government agencies together to discuss potential strategies.”

Professor Mark Ferguson, chair of the High Level Group, said Ireland aims to win some major EU Horizon 2020 research projects. “To achieve this, against strong competition, we need to identify key areas of opportunity, mobilise and engage all of the excellent research expertise across Ireland's academic and industrial – multinational, indigenous and SME – ecosystem to lead winning applications.

“By harnessing the expertise across all relevant government departments and agencies, we hope to identify and catalyse such winning bids. This is a major opportunity, especially as much of the funding is earmarked for industry."

After the first one hundred calls for proposals in H2020, Minister English said Irish universities had contributed significantly to the improvement of the successes.

"Among the Irish universities, NUI Galway has had a noteworthy success rate, attracting the highest Horizon 2020 funding, with projects that exemplify the collaborative approach,” he said.

One of their projects involves Irish SME Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin collaborating with the university on a large-scale clinical trial using adult stem cells to treat knee osteo-arthritis.

The project, which is co-ordinated by Professor Frank Barry of the Regenerative Medicine Institute, or REMEDI, at NUI Galway, has been funded to the value of almost €6 million and trials are expected to be underway across Europe by the end of 2015.

In a separate multi-million Euro clinical trial in the area of diabetic complications led by Professor Tim O’Brien of REMEDI and the Centre for Research in Medical Devices at NUI Galway, Galway-based Orbsen Therapeutics, a spin-out from NUI Galway, will also play a key role in the project, which will include partners in Northern Ireland and across Europe.

In both projects, Dublin-based SME, Pintail Ltd, will ensure effective collaboration between the partners and support the management and delivery of the funded projects.

“NUI Galway’s strong performance has ranged across many sectors, from the biosciences to the social sciences,” the minister said.

Doris Alexander, research development manager, Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, told University World News that Trinity’s progress has resulted from setting “very challenging targets” for H2020 and its approach of enabling a “symbiosis between its research diversification strategy and its industry engagement and global relations strategies”.

She says: “Trinity’s mechanism has primarily focused on broadening our participation base across the college as well as providing in-depth support for ERC applicants and coordinators through the design and roll-out of specially developed college initiatives including a ‘proposal bootcamp’.”

These initiatives, provided on a one-on-one basis, focus on ensuring innovative research projects are outcome/impact driven.

“It is early in H2020 but preliminary indications show that our approach is successful, with Trinity securing to date more ERCs than any other higher level institute in Ireland,” Alexander says.

Professor Orla Feely, vice-president for research, innovation and impact, University College Dublin, told University World News that UCD’s progress was aided by the way its commitment to excellent research and innovation maps very well to the requirements of Horizon 2020.

“Our academic community has engaged extremely strongly with Horizon 2020, and we have built internal supports aligned with thematic areas and also with the development of our talent pipeline. We are also engaging with industry in creative and agile ways, delivering success through partnership.”

Dr Imelda Lambkin, national director for Horizon 2020, Enterprise Ireland, said the Irish approach is to provide hands on assistance to Horizon 2020 applicants, and this level of support, building on national research and innovation investments, is paying off.

“Ireland’s researchers and companies are responding and showing that they can compete with the best internationally,” she says.

Enhanced performance

The Irish Universities Association has outlined a number of actions which the universities can take to enhance their performance under Horizon 2020:
  • • Foster and promote cross-institutional harnessing of research and innovation expertise to facilitate greater competitiveness;
  • • Establish a partnership with industry representative associations (IBEC, ISME etc) to seek out collaborations with the private sector in order to maximise the return from the “industrial leadership”;
  • • Work to maximise commercialisation opportunities arising from Horizon 2020 projects using the national technology transfer infrastructure, which has been strengthened by the establishment of the Central Technology Transfer Office;
  • • Work in partnership with universities and companies in Northern Ireland, InterTradeIreland and Invest NI, to develop more collaborative ventures for Horizon 2020;
  • • Develop targeted Horizon 2020/EU funding strategies for large-scale centres;
  • • Attract excellent people for European Research Council funding, target those with high potential already here and nurture them to develop successful ERC applications. Analyse the numbers and quality of applications which have not been funded to encourage re-application from high scoring but not funded candidates;
  • • Provide institutional-level incentives to attract and retain ERC award holders;
  • • Target COFUND under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions, providing a major opportunity for co-financing structured doctoral programmes and postdoctoral fellowship positions;
  • • Encourage university staff to put themselves forward as Experts (to evaluate for Horizon 2020 funding calls and participate in Horizon 2020 advisory groups), and to engage with significant groupings that influence programme content, such as Technology Platforms;
  • • Set up a policy and strategy working group as a sub-group of the Irish Universities Association’s Research Officers Group to assist the vice-presidents/deans of research in implementing their Horizon 2020 strategy.
Michael Ryan said the Science Foundation Ireland believes that national funding and EU funding are synergistic and complementary, that is to say, one does not substitute the other.

“Promoting Ireland’s product offering to a wider Europe can prove highly effective in drawing on EU funding. In Ireland, and particularly in SFI, we have a committed focus on catalysing significant industry leadership in larger projects, as well as maintaining performance in all the higher education institution-led programmes.”