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The odds of getting an EU grant may drop under Horizon 2020

According to an article published on Science|Business, success rates may drop to 15% from 20-22%, as EU officials brace for an unprecedented flood of applicants.

A pile-up of grant applicants could turn Europe’s biggest research programme into one of the toughest-ever to get money out of. 

The European Commission on December 11 announced the first €15 billion round of grant opportunities under its massive Horizon 2020 programme – but at the same time warned that the average odds of winning a grant could drop to around 15 per cent from the 20 - 22 per cent success rate of the current - smaller - Framework Programme 7. 


“Today we’re firing the starting gun” for Horizon 2020, Máire Geoghegen-Quinn, EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science said at a press briefing. Only the quickest out of the blocks, and the strongest, will be chosen as winners, she said.

Several factors will sharpen the competition, Commission officials said. Tough economic conditions, particularly in southern Europe, have forced many national research councils to cut their own budgets – leaving Brussels as the only game still open for many researchers.  Also, the long political negotiations that led to Horizon 2020 have meant that, for many researchers, they haven’t had an opportunity to bid for EU money in 18 months or more. And austerity policies in many EU member-states meant the Commission’s initial budget request was trimmed by nearly 15 per cent.

All that adds up to pent-up demand for less money than expected – and the daunting prospect of a larger number of disappointed grant seekers than ever before.  For the Commission, that isn’t entirely bad news, as it would reinforce its desired image as running world-class competitions for world-class researchers and engineers. But Commission officials privately fret that too high a rejection rate will turn off many grant applicants from ever trying again – and could generate political static from the European Parliament and some member-state governments, especially in the south and east of Europe. 

A mark of prestige

EU officials are struggling now to cope with the problem. At the European Research Council, a budget of €1.66 billion has been allocated to spend on about 1,000 researchers in 2014 in a series of four separate calls for grant applications. But ERC grants have emerged, since the basic-research agency began in 2007, as the a mark of prestige for winning researchers – so much so that some universities have even made the mere application for an ERC grant (regardless of its success) a part of a researcher’s requirements for qualifying for tenure. 

By the time the new call closes next spring, it will have been 18 months since most researchers will have had an opportunity to apply at all for a grant. To cope, the ERC announced it is amending its rules to say that, if a scientist’s grant application is rejected, he or she may not be able to reapply for one or two years (depending on how the ERC reviewers graded the application) - a stern rule that, ERC officials hope, will make applicants think twice about applying and only do so if they’re confident that their proposals are winners.  

Another coping mechanism, officials said, will be trying to coordinate their grant machine with that of the member-states so that, if an applicant scored highly in the Commission review but the money ran out, they can more easily get the funding from their own governments.  That would make the EU review process a quality badge that could be used for other programmes.

Read more on Science|Business

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EuropeLogo eInfastructure This project has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 313203
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