Horizon 2020 programme performs well but needs adjustment

Researchers and governments have given their views and feedback on the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme as it reaches the halfway mark

The Horizon 2020 programme has received mixed reviews from researchers and member state governments, according to a consultation.

The EU’s largest research and development funding programme, which was the successor of Framework Programme 7 (FP7), has reached the halfway mark of its lifecycle. To mark this milestone, the European Commission asked participants and those with a vested interest in the programme to comment on the success and failures of the scheme.

The Commission received 296 public submissions, which have been analysed by Science|Business. This feedback will form part of a formal review into the research and development (R&D) programme, which is expected to be published later this year.

Findings of the consultation

There was some high praise for the scheme, with a number of submissions applauding the scope of the framework and how it had opened up opportunities to scientists across Europe—particularly those from nations with smaller science budgets.

In their submission, Bristol University noted: “Horizon 2020 is making a significant contribution to European research, innovation and job creation and its budget must be protected moving forward.”

The Netherlands Federation of University Medical Centres described Horizon 2020 as “the best framework programme yet.”

Further commendations were given by the University of Porto. The university praised the scheme, which at times provides more funding than many any researchers could access in their home nation.

The submissions revealed that while most participants thought the programme was good, there were some frustrations with the length of proposals and the lack of feedback. A submission from Edinburgh University expressed this, stating: “Where a proposal which has taken many hundreds of hours’ work, costing tens of thousands of euro in time and effort from participants they should at the very least expect detailed feedback in their evaluation summary reports.”

Additional complaints were levelled at the low success rate for grant applications, with this mentioned in nearly all submissions.

Recommendations

Participants of the consultation suggested a number of methods to overcome perceived issues with the framework, including streamlining the application process and more encouragement for researchers to self-assess before submitting an application.

Maria Kandyla, a researcher in the Theoretical and Physical Chemistry Institute at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens, said her experience with the application part of the process had been largely negative. “I have written 60-page proposals, completely wasting my research time (compared to the 10-15 pages needed at the US National Science Foundation),” she wrote.

This sentiment was shared by Imperial College London, who stated in their submission: “Many Horizon 2020 proposals are tedious to write and to read.”

Another suggestion from participants was that Horizon 2020 should try to do less. This was expressed by both the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation and the German Cancer Research Centre. The latter called for the elimination of competitions “that do not fulfil their promise, keeping only the most efficient instruments”.

The German government also called for the various funding instruments of the programme to undergo a “thorough analysis of the effectiveness”.

Disparity of funding

Concerns were also raised about the geographical disparity of funding. According to the figures, five countries receive two-thirds of Horizon 2020 grants. Conversely, central and eastern European nations are only benefiting from just over four per cent of the total fund, leaving a divisive difference between locations and the amount of funding gained.

Peter Simon, a professor of chemical technology at the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, said his country was seeing many researchers moving to neighbouring member states.

He added: “In Austria, the salaries are three-five times higher than in Slovakia. From the centre of Bratislava to the Austrian border is 7 kilometres, to Vienna it is 50 kilometres. Many people work extra in Austria or the young people simply move [there].”

Additionally, EU-13 countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) were seen as benefiting less than EU-15 nations (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the UK). Science|Business reports that EU-13 nations won just 1.9 per cent of ERC grants—126 out of 6,687.

International participation

Within the submissions there was also a call for more focus on international participation in Horizon 2020. The German government warned the research programme had “become significantly less attractive for research players from outside Europe.”

This is apparent when considering the fact international involvement in Horizon 2020 has fallen to 2.2 per cent from almost five per cent seen under FP7.

Québec’s Ministry of Economy, Science and Innovation said frustrations with the programme had led officials there “to question ourselves on the efforts we must continue to invest in making Horizon 2020 known to the community and encouraging them to participate.”

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