In January this year, there were three years left of the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation – Horizon 2020. By this point, project contracts for around 29 billion of the programme’s almost 80 billion euros had been signed.
Of this amount, 1,008 million euros (corresponding to 3.5 per cent of the funds) had been awarded to Sweden. This means that Sweden is the eighth biggest recipient, after Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. This is according to data published by Vinnova – Sweden’s Innovation Agency – in April.
When calculated per capita, Sweden has fallen one place since the previous ranking, and is now in tenth place. This list is headed by Iceland, followed by the Netherlands and Denmark.
“It is quite a stable situation. In terms of the granting of funds, Sweden has been in eighth place throughout the entirety of the framework programme, and we see this as a good thing. We are also in the top ten when this amount is calculated per capita. But there is potential for more competitive applications”, says Jessica Umegård, who is the national contact person for the framework programme at Vinnova.
There are a number of factors that characterise a competitive application, according to the Irish researcher Sean McCarthy. In his capacity as an expert on Horizon 2020, he is engaged by universities throughout Europe.
He explains that, as one would expect, the educational institutions that are most successful in their applications first and foremost conduct good research. But they also have an understanding of how the evaluation process works, which, he points out, is something that one learns by conducting reviews.
“I have been a reviewer myself, and this is something I would encourage other researchers to do. In order to learn about the process, this is the best training available. Many reviewers come from countries that are successful in the framework programme”, he explains.
Highlight the brilliance
A third important factor for success is that applicants are good at selling their ideas. And, according to McCarthy, this varies from country to country.
“Swedes and researchers from the other Nordic countries have a lot of brilliant ideas. But you’re not the best when it comes to selling these ideas. You have your famous jantelag [a cultural tendency to frown upon singing one’s own praises or being overly ambitious]. When applying for grants from the ERC, for example, it is important to convince the panel of why you are particularly deserving of it. This means talking about all the good work that has been done, all the research grants that have been awarded, and so on”, he says.
During the framework project’s first three years, only 11 per cent of all formally correct applications submitted were successful. A large part of these are rejected at an early stage of the scientific evaluation, as they are deemed to be of insufficient quality.
If these were not counted, the proportion of grant approvals would instead be 25 per cent. McCarthy considers this to be a more realistic figure, and thinks that such applications should never have been submitted in the first place.
“Universities need to professionalise the entire process, establish good support offices, and filter out any weak applications. The researchers would need to get the support office involved as soon as the announcement is made.”
Dan Andrée is a research advisor at Vinnova and the Swedish Research Council’s shared offices in Brussels, and he thinks along similar lines. He believes that educational institutions should work more strategically in order to participate more in the framework programmes. This is where support offices, which help researchers who are applying for funding from, for example, the EU, have an important role to play.
“They would need more support. If the educational institutions can allocate resources in order to help researchers, the dividends would be significant. To give an example, the University of Copenhagen and the Technical University of Denmark have been working methodically and strategically with this, and they have made real progress”, he says.
In the table of organisations that have received the most from the framework programme, the University of Copenhagen ranks in 12th place and the Technical University of Denmark is in 23rd place. The highest ranking institution in Sweden is Karolinska Institutet (KI), which is in 30th place.
KI’s research support has been built up gradually. Five years ago, there were barely ten employees in the support office, but today there are more than three times as many.
“It is difficult to say whether we contribute to a project being granted support or not. But it can lower the threshold of applying for grants if the scientist knows that support is available throughout the entire process”, says head of unit Björn Kull.
Refine the formulation
Dan Andrée also emphasises the significance of how the application is written.
He refers to his own experiences as a reviewer of applications.
“The outcome of applications depends on the concrete effect a project can achieve. It is therefore a good idea to begin by describing this. Also, check which objectives the EU has for this area, as well as how a project would be able to help to achieve long-term objectives”, he explains.
Sean McCarthy has a similar way of thinking.
“Today, researchers write an application of up to 70 pages, which is then sent to the Commission. The assessors summarise and comment upon the proposal over several pages. One page will feature an explanation of why the application is either being granted or refused.”
He believes that the applicants should instead start by writing a one-page summary that explains why the project is so brilliant. If the idea is not good enough, this will already become apparent here.
“One question that reviewers always have at the back of their minds is why the project has not been done before. If an idea is really good, it will be easy to answer this by explaining why now is the right time to conduct the project and why the applicants are the right people to do it. If they’re not able to answer this question, it will be almost impossible to write an application”, says Sean McCarthy.
Lots of money left in the pot
According to the proposal presented by the European Commission in June, the next framework programme will have a similar structure to the current one. The new programme is called Horizon Europe, and will run from 2021 until 2027. With a budget of nearly 100 billion euros, this will be the world’s biggest research programme.
“This is receiving a lot of attention at the moment. But we should not forget that one third of the money in Horizon 2020 is still available. I think there should be a focus on applying for some of this during the next few years”, says Jessica Umegård.