Research guild calls for radical improvements to H2020

The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities has called for significant increases in European funding through Horizon 2020 and the next Framework Programme, FP9, and improved success rates for applicants, to ensure continued applications and optimal impact.

The guild is a recently established network of 18 research-intensive universities from 13 countries across Europe.

In a report published on 16 January, it made nine recommendations for how European funding through Horizon 2020, or H2020, and the next Framework Programme, FP9, can strengthen research and innovation.

The report, Unleashing the Potential of Europe’s Universities, says to ensure that Europe’s scientific, economic, cultural and social potential is optimised, the budget for research and innovation – in H2020 and for FP9 – must be significantly increased.

But improved application success rates are also needed to assure continued applications from Europe’s best researchers, through more active management of the application process.

The guild said it is of great concern that in 2015, more than three out of four funding proposals considered by independent experts to be of ‘high quality’ could not be funded through H2020.

“This represents an unacceptable waste of talent and potential where scientific advances could have been made and applied, for the benefit of Europe’s citizens. The funding of European research and innovation must be commensurate with the outstanding ideas generated by its scientists, entrepreneurs and businesses.”

The guild protests against the recent H2020 budget cuts made to create the European Fund for Strategic Investments or EFSI, noting that every €1 spent on the Seventh Framework Programme has generated an economic return of €11.

“We have not seen any evidence that EFSI funds will generate a similar rate of return. The majority of EFSI spending is not related to research and innovation [R&I], thus undermining Europe’s relative global position in world R&I spend. The most effective way to shore up Europe’s competitive position in R&I is to restore the full €2.2 billion [US$2.3 billion] taken from Horizon 2020’s budget to help finance EFSI,” the report said.

It added that H2020 resources cannot be stretched through loans, which many universities and other research-performing organisations, as public institutions, would be forbidden from taking.

“The EU is in a particular position to provide funding for internationally excellent research and innovation, based on collaboration and exchange. For this reason, we need the EU’s leadership in providing enhanced funding for research and innovation in Europe.”

The guild said the budget cuts have compounded the low – and declining – success rates for applications.

“This has generated unacceptable waste in time and resources spent on applications, and will discourage outstanding scientists from applying in the future. Application rates must be managed better, for instance through increased use of the controlled two-step application process, with a limited number of applications going through to the second round where success rates would then be much higher (around 33%).”

The guild also called for funding for the Excellent Science Pillar, which it describes as a “critical foundation to outstanding frontier research, to at least be maintained at current levels”.

“Individual and collaborative curiosity-driven research is the basis of the success of Horizon 2020, in the knowledge it creates and the impact it will generate. The Excellent Science Pillar has funded critically important science, promoting outstanding scholarship from across the career spectrum,” the guild says.

“Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions have been essential for attracting and training new generations of internationally leading researchers, who in turn contribute to the creation of outstanding science in academia and industry.

“The European Research Council has supported world-leading researchers, which has been recognised recently through the award of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Ben Feringa (Groningen), as well as the 2014 Fields Medals to Artur Avila (CNRS/Paris 7 Diderot) and Martin Hairer (Warwick).”

The guild wants to see the SME – small- and medium-sized enterprises – instrument opened up to allow collaboration with universities for disruptive innovation.

Empower researchers

It called for researchers to be empowered to identify how to address societal challenges and proposes within each societal challenge for consortia to identify key challenges that have arisen, apply for the funding, improving the connectivity of bottom-up and top-down approaches. This is borne of a recognition that through their research and their communities, universities have a very close understanding of our societal challenges in practice.

The guild voiced concern at the low level of funding in research and innovation won in low performing countries for structural, historical and economic reasons – and not just inability of institutions to pay competitive salaries.

“We call for the creation of a High-Level Expert Group including universities, research and technology organisations, and national policy-makers to develop concrete proposals about how to overcome barriers to excellence in research and innovation in low-performing regions.

“The Group’s findings must be of consequence to national policy-makers, urging them to undertake reforms that enhance the capacity of universities for research and innovation.”

More progress on ERA

The universities call for better progress on achieving the objectives of the European Research Area or ERA, because there are still substantial disconnects between European and national research systems, while transnational cooperation and competition should be optimised further. “We are far from achieving an open labour market for researchers, as well as gender equality throughout,” the report says.

The guild supports the work on ‘open innovation’ including the creation of the European Innovation Council to coordinate the open, radical and disruptive innovation driven by universities, industry and entrepreneurs, although it wants the funding to come from additional funds, not from Horizon 2020. It also supports measures on ‘open access’.

But it is critical of progress on being ‘open to the world’. The guild said insufficient progress has been made to enhance international cooperation, and for European research and innovation to be open to the world.

“We urge the [European] Commission to show real commitment by addressing the numerous obstacles to international cooperation, especially in relation to terms and conditions [like governing law, IP rules],” the guild says.

“We call upon the Commission to increase its efforts to create science and technology agreements with third countries that are not automatically eligible for funding in Horizon 2020, and to continue setting up co-funding mechanisms to make it easier for researchers from third countries to participate.”

Lastly, it said a more trust-based approach was needed between researchers and the Commission to ensure the effective implementation of grants and warned that the proliferation of funding programmes and instruments bears the risk of confusion for researchers and creates a need for more bureaucratic support for research and innovation, which is “not necessarily conducive to enhanced collaboration in R&I”.