EU fellowship successes confirm Denmark’s research standing

With the announcement that the country has been selected to host 77 postdoctoral fellows funded through Horizon Europe’s prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowships (MSCA-PF) programme, Denmark’s universities continue to reflect their ability to attract a significant slice of the region’s top research talent.

According to preliminary figures released after the first round of the MSCA-PF selection process, Denmark enjoyed a higher-than-average application success rate and the University of Copenhagen scored the highest number of recipients of any university in Europe, with 42 of the 77 grants being awarded to Denmark.

The two next European universities on this exclusive ranking list will receive 35 and 30 grants in results still to be announced.

The total number of MSCA fellowships available through Horizon Europe is 1,156. Denmark will receive DKK127 million (US$19 million) or 7.14% of the total funding of €242 million (US$255 million) to host the fellows who come from 29 different countries (including three from Denmark and others from Italy, Spain, Germany, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Pakistan) and comprise 30 women and 47 men.

The Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions programme is part of the Excellent Science pillar of Horizon Europe and is the EU’s flagship programme to support scientific excellence and cooperation across countries, sectors and research fields and in so doing help build Europe’s capacity for research and innovation.

The postdoctoral fellowships are intended for experienced researchers with PhDs to receive support for research stays at workplaces in EU or associated countries and at workplaces in third countries (outside the EU).

One aim of the MSCA-PF programme is to achieve a structural impact on higher education institutions, research institutions and centres and non-academic organisations.

In addition to the University of Copenhagen, the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Research announced that Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) also feature prominently on the list of European universities to receive fellows.

All three of these Danish universities received individual applicants that achieved a maximum score of 100 points in their applications. More granular detail about the call results can be found on the European Commission site.

Above-average success rate

In total, 8,247 applications were received with a success rate of 14%. The Danish success rate was 19%, the ministry noted.

These are preliminary results since contract negotiations are ongoing and are to be concluded by June 2022 when the full and final results and statistics will be published.

According to Marco Cavallaro’s blog on the Higher Education Policy Institute site, the 228 successful MSCA applicants who chose a UK-based host institution remain uncertain about whether their funding will come from the European Commission or the UK government as the UK’s status as an official associate of Horizon Europe is still not finalised in the wake of Brexit.

The participation (through association) of the UK in Horizon Europe is written into an agreement signed between the EU and the UK in December 2020. However, this agreement is still awaiting finalisation as a result of ongoing disagreement over changes proposed by the UK to the North Ireland protocol.

EU stakeholders are now pressing the EU to sign agreements of association with both EU and UK and Switzerland through a campaign known as “Stick to Science” which argues that association agreements with the two countries are being held up by political barriers that have nothing to do with science.

In the past, the UK and northwest European universities have attracted the lion’s share of MSCA grantees.

According to research by Martin Thomas Falk and Eva Hagsten published in 2020, the UK alone accommodated almost a third of the 5,000 scholars awarded the grant between the years 2014 and 2017.

“The University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and Imperial College, University College of London (UCL) host the largest number of fellows. Danish and Irish universities welcome a disproportionally large number of grantees given their sizes, while the opposite situation is found for German and Italian universities,” the paper states.

In 2015, the success rate for Danish applications of 24.6% was surpassed only by Estonia and Luxembourg. The UK secured the most awards with 475, followed by France with 144 and Spain with 128. The average success rate was 16.8%.

And again, in the 2018 call published in March 2019, Danish universities performed best among all the European grant recipients.

Focused efforts

This success is the product of focused efforts on the part of Danish institutions such as the University of Copenhagen.

Cancer researchers Kadi Løhmussaar (an Estonian citizen with a PhD from the Hans Clevers lab at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht) and Lidia Moyano Galceran (with a PhD from Karolinska Institute in Stockholm), who have secured fellowships to study at the Biotech Research and Innovation Centre (BRIC) at the University of Copenhagen, said in video footage produced by the university that support received from the BRIC grant office had been helpful to their applications.

Two out of the five applications sent by BRIC in the first round of Horizon Europe were successful, according to the centre’s website.

The University of Copenhagen’s department of arts and cultural studies also invests time in preparing potential applicants for the MSCA-PF. This includes a masterclass scheduled for May and June this year to improve project applications.

Assistant Professor at the Technical University of Denmark Andrea Crovetto is a past recipient of the MSCA fellowship and this year received the EU’s prestigious ERC starting grant of just over DKK17 million as well as the Villum Young Investigator grant of DKK6 million.

When asked by University World News what makes Denmark an attractive option for young scientists, Crovetto listed the high public research budget, decent salaries, good levels of English proficiency and the fact that Copenhagen in particular was “a very cool city for people in the 22-35 age range”.

“If you are already familiar with working in Denmark, I would add other things: a good work-life balance; relatively flat work hierarchies (attractive for young researchers like PhD students and postdocs who can have more scientific freedom instead of simply being ‘workforce’); and good conditions if you have children or should become unemployed.”

Research investments

When assessing Denmark’s position as a top research destination and talent repository, credit should also be given to the Independent Research Fund Denmark (IRFD).

In 2020, when the European Research Council awarded its prestigious Consolidator Grants to 327 talented European researchers, there were nine researchers from Danish universities among the recipients. Six out of the nine had previously received funding from IRFD.

Professor Maja Horst, head of the division for Responsible Innovation and Design at DTU and chair of the IRFD which works with the ministry to award 400 research grants annually amounting to well over DKK1 billion (US$145 million), told University World News the Danish research system had been “very focused” on excellence for the last 20-30 years.

“As a central player in this system, IRFD has been crucial for this development. Each year we give out a large number of relatively small grants based purely on excellence.

“While our grants are not large, they have significant impact as a signal of high quality and many of our young grantees go on to receive large and prestigious grants from other sources – national and international.

She said the IRFD was a part of a broader system focused on excellence.

“While we nurture a broad selection of excellent ideas with small grants, other research funding bodies (such as Grundforskningsfonden [Danish National Research Foundation], Novo Nordisk Foundation, Villum foundation and other private foundations) focus on larger grants to the most excellent researchers.

“It is my belief that the Danish universities are using their considerable knowledge of how to recruit excellent talent in their strategic efforts to utilise the MSCA programme.”

Investment in research

Professor Ana Maruši from the University of Split School of Medicine in Croatia who participated in an analysis of peer reviews of more than 75,000 Marie Curie applications from 2007-2018 told University World News that although not specifically focused on characteristics of individual countries, studies of the grant evaluation in MSCA and ERC programmes suggest that countries with more resources invested in research were more successful in attracting researchers.

“From my experience in collaboration with Danish researchers in EC Horizon 2020 research projects, Danish researchers have excellent research environments, extensive international networks, and dedication to responsible research, which all gives them significant advantage in grant competitions.”

Frede Blaabjerg, a professor in the department of energy technology at Aalborg University and chairman of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, told University World News that Denmark had an international outlook in research and innovation, including being able to attract top talent, in its DNA.

“The universities in Denmark have found MSCA to be a very fruitful scheme with many success stories and are very motivated to support applicants to get the best possibilities for their applications including connecting to strong faculties at the universities,” he said.