By Seema Sharma
Horizon 2020 is the EU’s current research, innovation and development framework, offering €80 billion in grant funding to researchers over a seven year period (2014-2020). It differs from its forerunner, FP7, in that it combines all funding directives into a single programme for innovation, education and R&D. The framework splits the majority of the assigned fund available between three areas: excellent science (€24.4 billion), industrial leadership (€17 billion) and societal challenges (€29.7 billion). There are a few areas outside of these, for example — science with and for society, and spreading excellence and widening participation.
The main aim of the European Commission, when outlining the new programme was to simplify and streamline the funding and application processes. One additional goal was to cut decision times on successful applications from an average of a year to eight months. The Horizon 2020 scheme provides a 100% reimbursement of direct costs for research projects and a 25% refund of indirect costs.
Useful background for applying for EU funding
To apply for funding, researchers much go through the open calls for proposals, submitting their project electronically and adhere to the deadlines stipulated. Some applications involve a two-stage submission with a short proposal initially, which if successful, will require a further full proposal.
In order to apply, your organisation needs to be registered and have a 9-digit Participant Identification Code (PIC). All current open calls for proposals are available on the participants portal, where you can perform an advanced search by topic.
Applications are open to those outside Europe, and researchers with a non-EU nationality are encouraged to apply, however the calls for proposals state that the research institution where the project is carried out must either be established in an EU Member State or an associated country, or it may be an International European Interest Organisation (e.g CERN, EMBL, etc.). Further information on what count as associated countries are listed here. You can also direct general enquiries to the National Contact Point in your country.
As an example of the grants available, we’ll be covering the stages of applying for European Research Council (ERC) grants that fall under the ‘excellent science’ category of EU research call for proposals. ERC grants constitute a significant pooled budget of over €13 billion in funding.
Available ERC grants
ERC grant funding covers any individual research projects that are pioneering in frontline research, for example the life sciences, physical sciences and engineering and social sciences. They emphasise that their main selection criteria is the scientific excellence of the researcher and the project. They also prioritise projects with high risk but high gain potential. Currently, five types of grants are available.
- ERC Starting Grant. This is an award of up to €2M with the criteria that you must have completed your PhD., 2-7 years before the publication date of the grant call. In addition, you must have at least one key publication in a high-ranking journal without the help of your PhD supervisor.
- ERC Consolidation Grant. This follows on from the Starting Grant and has an award of up to €75M, aimed at those who completed their PhD., 7-12 years prior to applying. Grant criteria stipulate that the researcher should have gained an excellent track record and shown independence and research maturity, with several high-impact publications under their belt.
- ERC Advanced Start Grant. This is subsequent to the Consolidation Grant, based on increasing levels of research experience. Here applicants must have a significant track record of research achievement gained in the last 10 years. The award is for up to €5M.
- ERC Proof of Concept Grant. In order to qualify for this fourth type of grant, you must have previously received an award from the ERC. Additionally, you must demonstrate that you have research outputs that can be turned into a valuable commercial or social proposition. If successful, the grant award is up to €150M in value.
- ERC Synergy Grant. Unlike the other grants that are aimed at an individual researcher applying, synergy grants are available for 2-4 Principal Investigators to collaborate on ambitious projects. The individual PI’s must have either an excellent early track record or more significant experience in the form of a 10 year record of achievement. The maximum award is for €10M to cover a 6 year period. Additional funding is available for PI’s needing to move to the EU as part of the proposal, equipment and access to facilities. This grant is currently on hold and will be re-introduced for 2018.
All grants awarded cover up to 5 years of research and aim to cover all of the direct costs of the project.
Tips on applying for an ERC grant
The administrative and summary forms required to apply for an ERC grant are straight-forward, although they may seem lengthy. It is essential to read the information for applicants for the specific ERC grant you are applying for (see the links at the end of the blog). Leave plenty of time so you can prepare each section with due care and attention. Also, its important to allow time for colleagues to review your application before you submit. Successful applicant researchers we spoke to spent between 3 months to 1 year preparing their ERC grant.
There are two stages to submitting the application. The first section (B1) consists of a 5 page synopsis of the project, with an accompanying 2 page CV and a track record document. Note that in the initial stage, this is all that is seen by the reviewing panel and they base their full decision on it, so it has to be outstanding.
Each panel normally consists of 10-15 experts in your field and they may not be in your direct area of expertise, so aim for clarity and concise statements on the significance of the project for a lay research audience. They are looking for individuals that demonstrate a rigorous scientific approach and management skills.
Include succinct objectives, as well as details of the scientific feasibility of the project with some preliminary data. Use this section to balance out the high risk, high gain aspects of the research. Your CV should be compelling and informative, and together with your track record showcase your expertise and excellence in your research field.
At this first stage the panel evaluates your proposal and grades your application A, B or C. Only those applications that receive an A grade are deemed high quality and will progress to the second stage. In past years one quarter of all application received a grade A to make it through to the second stage.
It is at this point the second part of your application (B2) is taken into consideration. This consists of a fifteen page explanation of your project. This must include detailed objectives, methodology and resources, including time commitments and budget. Make sure you include details of the team members involved and what they will be doing. Make the reviewers task easier by breaking up the prose with relevant figures and data. Again, ensure you have plenty of time to prepare this part of the application. Get colleagues to review it and use any support available to you — for example your institutes grant office, to help.
If you’re successful for the first stage of the application, you are also invited to an interview in Brussels, where you give a ten minute presentation about your project. Advanced preparation with plenty of rehearsal is key to achieving the clarity the panel are looking for. Successful candidates we spoke too had spent a month preparing and rehearsing the presentation in front of peers. Preempt any doubts that may arise over scientific weaknesses in the project by explaining how you will deal with them. Ensure you provide preliminary data and demonstrate how you would problem-solve if any road blocks occurred. Project your enthusiasm and commitment to the project to the panel. Finally, the panel are looking for a certain degree of honesty, so do not be tempted to over-stress the scientific impact of your work.
Based on your B2 form and interview, your final application will be evaluated and graded A if it is excellent enough to be funded. On average, 40% of grants meet the ERC’s excellence criterion and receive a grant award at this second stage.
Good luck with your application!
- Leave plenty of preparation time
- Your synopsis (B1) form is crucial in the decision to get to stage 2
- Ensure you get colleagues and peers in adjacent fields to review before you submit
- Demonstrate outstanding knowledge of your scientific field
- Show time commitment and an exceptional track record
- Rehearse your interview
EU participants portal, current calls for action
ERC 2018 work programme
ERC information for applicants to Starting Grant and Consolidation Grant
ERC Information for applicants Synergy Grant
EU grant eligible ‘associated countries’
National Contact Point Portal