The French National Research Agency (ANR) outlines how they are committed to increasing the quality of science funding through European collaboration

In both basic and applied research fields, funding is becoming increasingly more competitive. As a project-based funding body, ANR – the French National Research Agency – is committed to increasing the quality of science funding, through renewed funding instruments, restructured application processes and a drive toward European collaboration. Since its creation in 2005, the agency has undergone profound changes to transform and consolidate its position in the French research ecosystem and the European Research Area (ERA).

As it approaches its tenth anniversary, ANR is now well established in the European scene and acknowledged for the effectiveness of its actions, as witnessed by its presence in numerous European and global forums and its fruitful partnerships with the main funding agencies abroad. From the moment it was created, ANR notably concentrated on rapidly integrating the European networks, thereby facilitating the cross-border collaborations of the French teams levered by project-based funding.

Coordinating national and European funding

As a funding agency, one of the greatest challenges is how to articulate the different funding instruments that exist at the national and European levels. This is a reason why ANR has threaded together much of its Work Programme – ANR’s roadmap for the year 2015 – with the funding programme Horizon 2020, and more broadly with the European policy agenda. Its programming is structured around major societal challenges that are common to the national and European societies.

ANR has set itself the priority of improving coordination between national and European funding schemes within the ERA. ANR’s Work Programme is thus divided into 4 components, one of which is entirely dedicated to building the ERA and developing France’s international attractiveness.

One of the main challenges facing ANR is to boost French participation in European calls for proposals, with a view to raising the visibility and profile of the country’s research. The agency has just launched a brand new instrument entitled “Setting up European or International Scientific Networks”. The aim is to encourage the formation of research networks that are well placed to respond to European funding programmes, thereby facilitating French researchers’ access to these programmes – in which France’s scientific community is currently under-represented. The call encourages French researchers to set up networks composed of national and foreign teams from the public or private sector that represent a wide range of skills and disciplines. The short-term goal of these networks should be to design and develop collaborative research projects involving the networks’ members. These networks can cover any number of scientific disciplines related to a topic with recognised scientific, technological or societal impact.

Developing collaborative research in France and in Europe

ANR’s actions contribute to developing collaborative research by rallying scientific teams from all horizons around common S&T issues as well as around societal challenges.

By pooling the skills and resources of different teams, collaborative research reinforces the synergies between teams who would not habitually have worked together and enables them to achieve more ambitious results which break away from the conventional paths. Collaborative projects give pride of place to scientific audacity and interdisciplinary to foster the development of emerging themes, disciplinary and transdisciplinary breakthroughs, new models and methods, or advances in theory to improve the position of French teams in European and international programmes.

Collaborative projects (whether academic, transnational or through academic-enterprise partnerships) represent the main mode of ANR funding and account for more than 75% of projects funded by the agency in 2014. 75% of the ANR transnational funded projects have built on European consortia.

…notably through the “Lead Agency” method.

Open, cross-border exchange of knowledge and discovery is at the heart of science. To facilitate science inside Europe, it is essential to provide researchers with opportunities to collaborate across national borders in order to form collaborative research projects fostering the exchange of ideas and scientific expertise. Supporting research projects conducted in different countries requires arrangements between the funding bodies concerning application, review and funding processes. Apart from specific transnational calls involving a unique application and review process, project partners must traditionally apply to their respective funding agency. Only if all agencies involved approve the application, then the transnational project can go ahead. This procedure means a “double jeopardy” for the applicants, as the national peer review procedures are carried out independently. This also implies a financial and administrative burden.

To make for simpler and speedier scientific collaborations, to create seamless research funding areas and thereby help build the ERA, ANR sets up bilateral collaborations with European funding agencies. It signs agreements that serve to facilitate collaboration between teams from different countries. They can concern targeted themes or be open to all the research themes funded by ANR. In this case, each agency funds the teams from their respective country.

The “lead agency” procedure is undoubtedly the most advanced form of such inter-agency partnerships. It is based on transparency and mutual trust between the funding bodies: the lead agency takes responsibility for the receipt, the evaluation and the selection of projects for the countries involved. It, therefore, enables researchers to avoid “double jeopardy” in their co-operation thorough evaluation by a single lead agency and contributes to reducing the administrative burden. In 2014, ANR decided to implement this procedure on a bilateral basis with the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). The scheme is also implemented with the FNR in Luxembourg.

Developing European cooperation through the EC instruments

European cooperation allows for mutual enrichment and increased efficiency. By putting competition aside, we create an incentive environment for synergies, shared vision and joint strategy.

The European Commission (EC) has developed a series of instruments facilitating Pan-European collaborations: ERA-NETs and ERA-NETs Cofund, Joint Programming Initiatives (JPIs). In that context, funding agencies issue calls for transnational proposals that are clearly on the rise and that are expected to complement the Horizon 2020 calls. ANR is a driving force in these programmes. Through joint calls, we promote the notion of excellence throughout Europe.

Within the scope of an ERA-NET Cofund for instance, the partner agencies launch a large-scale call for proposals bringing together at least 5 countries in a target field. These calls can only be launched if they create European added value and complement the Horizon 2020 calls from a thematic perspective. If this is the case, the Commission joins forces with the partner agencies and co-funds the research projects. ANR takes an active part in these networks, in fields such as biodiversity, environment, biology and health. The agency is the coordinator of the ERA-NET Cofund on rare diseases (E-Rare-3); this is overall the fifth ERA-NET coordinated by ANR.

Those instruments are also forums for discussions, joint analysis, networking and platforms to detect bottlenecks. We also meet with our European partners to define common priorities and coordinate our actions. The JPIs are inter-governmental initiatives supported by the EC. They are also a tool to promote evidence-based policymaking and thus go beyond the research itself. All of these activities contribute to greater coordination of the national research agendas, and beyond, they are pushing towards alignment of research programmes and greater integration. ANR is also a member of 8 of the 10 JPIs currently underway in Europe.

Responding together to major societal challenges

The development of such multilateral partnerships is finally a unique way to respond to societal challenges together. Funding bodies pool resources and share research costs in research areas that strongly profit from coordination on a European scale.

Using the example of JPIs, the member bodies develop roadmaps and strategic research agendas on the major societal challenges: demographic change, Alzheimer’s diseases, food security and climate change, antimicrobial resistance, etc., which in turn feed the European research programming and Horizon 2020.

Working together, they wish to optimise national research efforts and network the actors (research organisations and funding agencies) in order to respond as effectively as possible to the major societal challenges facing Europe as a whole. They aim at avoiding the fragmentation of research in Europe by combining and coordinating the efforts and setting up joint research programmes on issues that are of major importance for European societies and that the national programmes cannot address alone.


Sophie Ferrand

International Communications Manager

The French National Research Agency (ANR)

Tel: +33 (0)1 73 54 81 72


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