Horizon 2020 endangered by low success rate, says EUA

Horizon 2020 is endangered by critically low application success rates due to insufficient funding at the European Union and national levels, according to a consultation among the 150 member institutions of the European University Association or EUA.

The concern is reinforced by findings in the Horizon 2020 Monitoring Report 2015, released earlier this month, that there has been a dramatic rise in applications for funding from Horizon 2020 – the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation for 2014-20 – but also a significant fall in the success rate.

The number of applications sent in to Horizon 2020 increased by 23.9% from 2014 to 2015, when 42,535 eligible proposals were delivered, involving 152,627 applications.

The share of proposals succeeding in securing a contract fell from 13.2% in 2014 to 10.7% in 2015, a fall of nearly 19%. The success rate is due to decline further, the report says, due to the enormous oversubscription.

Thomas Estermann, EUA director of governance, funding and public policy development, said the low success rate translates into “higher participation costs, wasted research ideas, and greatly reduces the competitiveness of the European Research Area and the efficiency of public investment”.

The fears raised by EUA members – 150 universities in 28 countries across Europe responded to the consultation – are significant given that European universities are key beneficiaries of the framework programme and staunch supporters of Horizon 2020.

The EUA’s analysis is that many universities are less successful with their proposals to Horizon 2020 than they were in the previous Seventh Framework Programme, and the latest figures from the Horizon 2020 Monitoring Report 2015 reveal that the situation is even worse than expected by the sector as almost 90% of all and nearly 75% of high-quality proposals remain unfunded.

“The expanding attractiveness of Horizon 2020 creates more competition than the system can sustain with the current levels of funding and thus greatly reduces the efficiency of public investment,” the EUA analysis says.

The EUA analysis, linking its consultation feedback to its EUA Public Funding Observatory data, suggests there is also a link between the increasingly low success rate of Horizon 2020 applications and the changing funding situation in many national systems, which is encouraging more applications for funding from other sources including Horizon 2020.

“Universities that see national opportunities go down are more attracted by the programme, but tend to be less successful in their bids to Horizon 2020,” EUA says. “This result needs to be considered by national funders in their future investment strategies.”

Universities' falling share of contracts

According to the Horizon 2020 Monitoring Report 2015, some 39% of the total number of proposals in 2014-15 were sent in by universities and €10.6 billion (US$11 billion) was allocated to universities and research institutions in the two first years of Horizon 2020.

But the amount awarded to universities in signed grants fell from €3.225 million in 2014 to €3.077 million in 2015.

The EUA says EU-level funding for research and innovation based on grants and open competitive calls creates unparalleled added value and is paramount for retaining scientific talent and boosting Europe’s global competitiveness. But the low success rate is causing increasing concern.

The EUA believes one of the most important steps needed is to increase funding for the framework programme budget in order to fund the top proposals.

Another key priority is to reduce the costs generated at all levels and improve the overall system efficiency.

Respondents to the EUA consultation pointed out that despite progress on simplification, Horizon 2020 projects bear significant administrative and financial burdens given accounting and reporting complexities, as well as insufficient coverage of indirect costs.

“Rigid and costly implementation undermines sustainability and capacity in retaining and attracting scientific talent, which hampers global competitiveness,” explains David Drewry, EUA vice-president and chair of the Research Policy Working Group. “Excellent, multidisciplinary and collaborative university-based research is key to ensure societal progress and well-being in the long-term.”

The number of proposals retained for funding in 2015 was 4,565 or 22.7% of the proposals above the ‘high quality threshold’, a decline of 8.8% in relation to 2014. In total, approximately 25,000 ‘high quality proposals’ in the two first years of Horizon 2020 were not funded, according to the monitoring report.

Effects of oversubscription

The EUA said the adverse effects of oversubscription and low retention rates for top-rated proposals affect the entire research and innovation landscape in Europe in several ways.

“Novel research ideas that could benefit the economy and society in the long term remain unfunded and the exceptionally low success rate risks further deterring top researchers from participating in the programme,” the EUA said.

“Institutions also accumulate multiple losses through a costly proposal development cycle.” It estimates the waste in the system caused by the cost of unsuccessful bids is €1.4 billion (US$1.46 billion), compared to the €5.5 billion allocated to the first 100 calls, and as European universities are mostly funded by public budgets it is the taxpayer who is paying the bill.

Stakes rising

The monitoring report noted that the stakes per application are rising for the top 50 performing higher education institutions within the programme, as projects they have secured have increased in value (from €562,800 to €745,000 on average), but dropped in number (from nearly 3,000 in 2014 to just under 2,000 in 2015).

United Kingdom institutions dominated the list, taking 14 places in 2014 – led by the University of Cambridge (1), Imperial College London (2), the University of Oxford (3) and University College London or UCL (4) – and 14 in 2015, with UCL now equal top with Cambridge, receiving €75 million each. In Cambridge’s case this funded 114 projects; for UCL it funded 104.

In 2015 the Netherlands was another strong performer with 10 universities represented, topped by Delft University of Technology (5th overall), and also Germany with six universities represented, led by the Technical University of Munich at 17th.

The total allocation of EU funding for the top 50 universities in Horizon 2020 and the Seventh Framework Programme over nine years amounts to €4.2 billion (US$4.4 billion).