Factors behind Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action grant wins

The University of Oslo in Norway is punching above its weight in terms of the number of Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Individual Fellowships awarded in the announcement by the European Commission on 8 February, hosting 25 overall, including 11 in the humanities faculty alone.

This is despite MSCA fellowships being among the most competitive and prestigious awards in Europe, aimed at supporting the best and the most promising scientists. There are indications, for instance, that the MSCA fellows (grantees) perform better on average both before and after the grant.

Per Magnus Kommandantvold, who is the national coordinator for MSCA in the Research Council of Norway, told University World News: “The University of Oslo was awarded 25 out of the 47 fellowships awarded to Norway in the 2020 call. Of these, 11 went to the humanities faculty, which is really impressive.”

“They have understood what the European Commission wants to achieve by awarding these grants to young and mobile researchers and act accordingly. Hence ‘they are fighting in a higher division’ than you should expect from metrics alone.”

Oslo is one of a number of institutions outperforming others amid this stiff competition. What are the success factors behind their bids?

Flagship programme

The MSCA programme was established in 1996 and expanded significantly in the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, with €6 billion (US$7.3 billion) in funding for the period 2014-20. It is the European Union’s flagship fellowship programme for researchers, supporting 1,630 experienced postdoctoral researchers working at top universities and research organisations in Europe and the rest of the world, as well as in the private sector and SMEs.

The programme allows researchers to work on projects in all research fields while receiving training and supervision to enhance their skills and boost their careers.

Individual Fellowships support the mobility of researchers within and beyond Europe – as well as helping to attract the best foreign researchers to work in the EU.

The grant usually covers two years’ salary, a mobility allowance, research costs and overheads for the host institution. Individual researchers submit proposals for funding in liaison with their planned host organisation.

Proposals are judged on their research quality, the researcher’s future career prospects, and the support offered by the host organisation. Fellows can also spend part of the fellowship elsewhere in Europe if this would boost impact, and those restarting their career in Europe benefit from special eligibility conditions.

The February announcement is the final one under Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Under its successor, Horizon Europe, the €95.5 billion (US$116.7 billion) research and innovation programme for the period 2021-27, MSCA will continue to support postdoctoral fellows through the MSCA Postdoctoral Fellowships action. There was a record of 11,573 applications and a success rate of 14% this year.

Faculty of humanities, Oslo

The University of Oslo’s humanities faculty has now been awarded 30 such grants in Horizon 2020.

The latest projects awarded grants include:

• “Made in Sweatshops. Worker, Technology and Gender (comparison Paris-Shanghai, Late 19th c.-Late 20th c.)”, proposed by Audrey Millet at the European University Institute, Florence; mentored by Professor Véronique Pouillard at the University of Oslo department of archaeology, conservation and history.

• “Rethinking Mary in Early Modern Italy: Men’s and Women’s Perspectives on the Virgin Mary (1450-1650)”, granted to Eleonora Carinci, University of Cambridge; mentored by Professor Unn Falkeid at the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas.

• “Nezam and Nazm: Iran’s Concept of International Order”, granted to Alireza Shams Lahijani, London School of Economics; mentored by Associate Professor Einar Wigen at the department of culture studies and oriental languages.

• “Becoming Indigenous Language Speakers and Writers in Higher Education”, granted to Frances Kvietok Dueñas, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia, Lima, Peru; mentored by Professor Pia Lane at the department of linguistics and Scandinavian studies.

Mathilde Skoie, research dean at the faculty of humanities, added: “We want to invest in the postdoctoral candidates in our work to achieve a good research culture, and the MSCA grantees are an important part of this.”

Frode Helland, dean at the faculty, says the fact that “so many excellent researchers are choosing to come to us” is a result of “many very strong research milieus at the faculty”.

“Textile history, Indian science fiction and premodern understanding of Virgin Mary are among the themes to be researched. Several of the projects are bringing important gender and minority perspectives in their research. The grantees are connecting to ongoing research at the faculty.”

UK and Northern Europe dominate

Martin Thomas Falk and Eva Hagsten, in the article “Potential of European universities as Marie Curie grantee hosts” in the journal Higher Education in May 2020, examined the pattern of European universities hosting individual Marie Curie postdoctoral grantees in the period 2014-17.

The number of MSCA Individual Fellowships assigned during the period 2014-17 based on acceptance year ranges between 1,200 and 1,360 per year, according to the CORDIS Horizon 2020 database.

In their study, the year 2017 is selected for the scholarship data, while information on university characteristics refers to 2016, to allow for the application and acceptance processes. For 2017, information on the 817 MSCA grantees can be linked to the 390 universities listed in the Times Higher Education rankings databases. Of these, 203 hosted MCSA fellows.

Falk and Hagsten found a pattern of UK and Northern European dominance, with almost a third of the grantees hosted at UK institutions in 2014-17.

“To date, universities in the Northwest of Europe are hosting the largest number of MSCA grantees, with the UK alone accommodating almost a third of the 5,000 scholars awarded the grant between the years 2014 and 2017 found in the CORDIS Horizon 2020 database. The University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and Imperial College London and University College London host the largest number of fellows.”

They found that Danish and Irish universities welcome a disproportionately large number of grantees given their sizes, while the opposite situation is found for German and Italian universities.

Universities in Southern and Eastern Europe are seldom MSCA grantee hosts, but a large proportion of the grantees receive their PhDs in these countries, Falk and Hagsten noted.

Three universities ahead of pack

Three universities were far ahead of the rest with regard to numbers of individual MSCAs hosted over the four years 2014-17: University of Oxford (164), Copenhagen University (164) and the University of Cambridge (137). They were followed by four more UK universities: University College London (UCL) (99); Imperial College London (90), University of Birmingham (74) and Leeds (62).

Then in eighth place was KU Leuven, Belgium (58), followed by Queen Mary University London (46) and Bristol, UK (53). The next non-UK university was Aarhus, Denmark (43), joint 11th with Edinburgh, UK (43).

Falk told University World News the University of Oslo is an example of a university that receives “more MSCA fellows than would be expected based on its size and excellence criteria”.

In 2017, the University of Oslo hosted twice as many MSCA scholarship recipients as would have been expected based on its research index, citation index, size and student-staff ratio (10 MSCA scholars as compared to 4 scholars predicted by a count data model).

“The reason for this could be the university's good brand. Many universities in Denmark are similarly successful.”

He said the future prospects for attracting MSCA scientists to Oslo University are positive.

“There is a high degree of path dependency in science and research, so more MSCA submissions can be expected. In addition, Brexit could lead to a shift of MSCA scholars to universities in Northern Europe, where English-language PhD programmes are standard.”

Estimated number of grantees based on excellence

Falk and Hagsten have investigated the potential of European universities as hosts for MSCA grantees. Factors explaining both the probability of a university hosting an MSCA grantee and its extent are estimated using a “zero-inflated negative binomial regression model”.

The results of their research reveal that the probability of hosting MSCA grantees increases significantly with excellence (research performance), size of the university and the country group or European region in which it is located. In addition, a deepening of excellence (citations), international orientation and the teaching burden (student-staff ratio) are significant predictors for the extent of grantees.

Based on the estimations of the model, the predicted number of MSCA grantees is calculated. This makes it possible to benchmark the actual and the potential performance of universities, with the University of Copenhagen used as the benchmark because it hosts the largest number of MSCA fellows, they said.

In one table in their study, 60 universities that are hosting five MCSA fellows or more are listed, comparing their performance with the estimate based on the model. This reveals that some universities in the Northwest of Europe host more MSCA grantees than would have been expected given their attributes, and certain top universities host fewer.

These results could be related to marketing and support activities that partially offset the importance of research performance or alternative models for financing.

“The comparison reveals that a group of universities, mainly in the Northwest of Europe (University of Copenhagen, KU Leuven, University of Birmingham, University of Leeds, Aarhus University, University of Bristol, Eindhoven University of Technology, University of Antwerp, Aston University, University of Oslo, University of Warwick and Paris-Sorbonne University), but also Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and University of the Basque Country, accommodate far more fellows than would have been expected given their attributes,” Falk and Hagsten said.

But Imperial College London, UCL, ETH Zürich and LMU Munich, for instance, host fewer than expected.

One explanation behind a lower than potential performance by a top-ranked university could be that there are other grants for individuals available that reduce the pressure to attract MSCA funding and fellows.

Alternatively, due to the availability of staff, space or other reasons, the university may decide not to use its full potential.

Another factor could be the way in which universities market themselves and the MSCA scholarships or embed them in their regular activities.

Although this information is difficult to obtain, there are indications that certain institutions, for instance KU Leuven and University of Copenhagen, are particularly keen on promoting MSCA grants and they also offer assistance in the application process by organising master classes for potential grantees.

Ca’ Foscari in Venice uses an unconventional approach and offers to prolong the MSCA scholarship with a third year financed by the university.

Assistance of grant managers in the MSCA applications process will also lead to a higher success rate for research institutions.

University of Oslo’s Master Class

Per Magnus Kommandantvold said he thinks the University of Oslo has done well due to the structured way they have selected the candidates and in the approach for developing the projects that the humanities faculty has, using Master Classes.

Magnus Garder Evensen who is senior research adviser in the faculty of humanities at the University of Oslo, told University World News: “We have systematically worked with MSCA Individual Fellowships since 2017, and arranged one Master Class every year. This is modelled after Copenhagen University that has had great success with their Master Class.

“In the Master Class we invite potential applicants to a meeting where we go through the MSCA programme and give specific advice about how to write the application. Here we use staff at our faculty who are mentors for existing MSCA grantees, research advisors or [former] evaluators in Brussels.

“Last year we arranged the [master] class digitally, and also this year we will do it digitally.”

He said each of the projects is allocated approximately €214,000 (US$261,750), totalling €2.354 million for the 11 projects. The grantees receive standard grants which give additional support if they have a family and depending from which country they come.

“We are totally dependent on the recruitment of candidates at the departments and it is the departments that are nominating the candidates and we see that a two-way transfer of knowledge between the mentor and the applicant is important,” Garder Evensen said.

“Also, we have very good research advisers that take part in all elements of the project and give extensive feedback on the drafted applications.”

He said the faculty has also developed its own resources, such as a separate Guide for MSCA Applicants at the faculty of humanities and has a three-party unit in which the applicants, mentors and research advisers consult together.

Ida Caiazza, one of the Marie Curie grantees, whose project focuses on “A Gendered History of Emotions in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy”, told University World News that she chose the University of Oslo “because of the department’s experience in managing the MSCA fellowship, but above all, I chose it because I wanted to work with Professor Unn Falkeid, who is a prominent scholar in my field, and is amazingly good at involving scholars in her research projects.

“She not only is a brilliant scholar, but also an excellent team leader and a project manager".

Alpo Honkapohja, University of Edinburgh, told University World News he chose Oslo to focus on an “Index of Middle English Prose: Digital Cotton Catalogue Project”, because he already knew people there with convergent research interests, particularly his mentor, whom he had often bumped into at conferences, and Kari Anne Rand, editor-in-chief for the Index of Middle English Prose, also based at Oslo.

He said: “I hope to have completed an exciting project and to have a sufficient track record for professorial positions by the time I’ve finished. The training programme is tailored to fix holes in my CV.”