Last Thursday Sam and I travelled down to London for ModernGov’s Accessing European Funding Seminar. It was an early start but worth it for some useful insights into the likely shape of Horizon 2020 (the successor funding programme to FP7), as well as crowd sourced hints and tips on developing a high quality Marie Curie Fellowships application for one of the few FP7 calls remaining.
Understanding European Funding
Linda Pialek, Head of the European Team at Oxford’s Research Services department, kicked off with a comprehensive overview of EU funding available: what it is, why the EU funds research, where to find out about it, and how to get it.
It’s a brave person who attempts to survey the vast and complex array of EU funding opportunities, including research and structural funds, within an hour and inevitably there was some overrun/death by PowerPoint. However, overall it was a commendably clear and concise summary which managed to pack in a good amount of useful detail for the EU funding newbie (and even the not-so-newbies).
The key points:
- Why: the EU funds research and other activities in order to achieve its strategic objectives (we’re currently working towards the Europe 2020 strategy) and where there are issues and challenges which benefit from a coordinated, transnational approach. To put it another way, it seeks to reduce duplication in funding (where two or more national governments may fund the same or similar activity) and adds value by ensuring EU-wide cooperation.
- What: broadly speaking there are two mechanisms for European funding – contracts and grants.
- Contracts are competitively awarded via calls for tender and cover a whole range of activities, from the supply of books and IT equipment to studies, analyses and technical consultancy. Clearly some of these activities are more relevant to universities than others. Contracts are highly specific and suppliers must meet this specification and offer good value for money. Tenders are not announced in advance and there can be a very quick turnaround required to take advantage of these opportunities.
- Grants are more familiar territory for universities and the EU issues a mixture of top-down and bottom-up calls for proposals via an annual Work Programme. What this means is that essentially you can plan grant applications in advance, unlike tenders, and there is more opportunity to specify the direction of the projects awarded. Most of the FP7 budget is awarded as grants for individual research projects and networks, and Horizon 2020 will be similar (see below).
- How: there are three ways to get involved in EU funding: as an expert to develop the strategic agenda and shape calls; as an evaluator to review proposals and get insider knowledge on EU grants; and as a beneficiary by submitting an application and participating in a funded project. Linda stressed the timescales involved in grant applications for European funding are generally around a year from submission of the bid to project start. What happens in between is the evaluation and project negotiation, if you’re successful.
- Tips: a vast array to tips and insights were provided on the best way to access EU funding, from reading through past successful bids to attending info days; from understanding eligibility criteria to finding and managing a consortium. Essentially though, it boiled down to making sure you’re as prepared as possible as early as possible. When it comes to European funding, Linda’s view was simple: you can never start early enough because it will always be too late.
Horizon 2020: an update from BIS
Steve Ringer, Head of Framework Programme Management at the International Knowledge and Innovation Unit in BIS, gave an update on the current state of play on Horizon 2020, the successor to FP7.
There has been a mix of useful information, speculation and analysis flying around on Horizon 2020 recently but Steve’s presentation was a useful summary of what we know, what we don’t, and what we can make an educated guess about. It’s important to note that Horizon 2020, like all of the EC’s programmes, is at the moment just a proposal and its adoption is dependent on the Multi-Annual Financial Framework being signed off by EU Heads of State in the European Council. This is a closer prospect now than at the end of 2012, but it could still take until autumn for the i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed.
- H2020 brings together three programmes previously under FP7, the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme, and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. Like FP7, it’s a multi-year programme which will run from 2014-2020.
- There will be three “pillars”:
- Excellent Science, covering a number of “bottom up” actions such as the European Research Council (or IDEAS programme), Marie Curie actions (e.g. Fellowships), and Future and Emerging Technologies (this gets pulled out of the ICT theme where it sat in FP7 and gets a big boost to funding in current proposals.
- Industrial Leadership, with innovation for SMEs, access to risk finance including venture capital for SMEs, and key enabling technologies covering six technology areas (ICT, space, biotech,).
- Societal Challenges, this is the replacement for the Cooperation programme in FP7 and is rather different since it is carved up into large, cross-cutting issues rather than disciplinary themes: health and ageing, food security, clean energy, smart transport, and climate action are included in the challenges. The sixth challenge, which was an amalgamation of social sciences and security, has now been split into two: Europe in a changing world and Secure societies. Cultural Heritage had been proposed as an additional challenge but has not been agreed. Given the titles of these challenges, there will inevitably be a focus on interdisciplinary projects to address them, many of which will feature an enhanced role for industry, SMEs and other non-research focused actors.
- The current proposal from the EC is a budget of €80bn over the period. However, the European Council (EU heads of state) has suggested a significant cut to €70bn in line with cuts suggested elsewhere in EU budgets. The European Parliament (MEPs), however, wants an increase from the original €80bn proposal. Where it will end up is anybody’s guess at the moment, but BIS indicated that they expected it to fall somewhere in between €70-80bn.
- Within this budget the current breakdown in the three pillars is: Excellent Science 32%; Industrial Leadership 23%; and Societal Challenges 41%, with the remainder on EIT and Joint Research Council. Within those pillars the headline is that ERC sees a doubling of its budget from FP7 to €15bn, which is welcome news for the UK since it has done so well from this strand in the past. Marie Curie, meanwhile, has a more modest increase to €6.5bn, which Steve suggested may be revised upwards before the whole thing is signed off.
- Simplification is one of the watchwords in H2020, but it should be stressed that this is a relative term! From what we know, however, it does look more straightforward than FP7. Current negotiations suggest that there will be a single funding rate of 100% of eligible costs for all research, non-profit, and public sector actors, with an indirect cost rate of 25% of eligible costs (though this may drop back to the original proposal of 20%). Industry would get 70% of eligible costs for close to market actions, with the same indirect cost rate. Different reimbursement rates for different types of activities would be a thing of the past.
- Alongside this, the EC has proposed a raft of other changes designed to increase participation and reduce paperwork: fewer, better targeted audits; a broader acceptance of participants’ accounting practices; simpler grant agreements; making VAT an eligible cost; and a faster average time to grant (targeting 230 days average, down from the current 330 days).
- Given that H2020 is due to start on 1st Jan 2014, the timeline to adoption is tight. The next key step as mentioned is the ratification of the Multi-annual Financial Framework, likely in Summer/Autumn 2013. Following that informal calls may be released as early as December this year.
Marie Curie Fellowships: Good practice tips to help secure EU funding
Linda Pialek led a workshop in the afternoon which mainly focused on proposal writing for the latest Marie Curie Fellowships call, which I blogged about here last week. Although this exercise focused on a specific call, the approach is widely applicable to other EU funding streams.
The starting point is to read the guidance and understand what the call is fundamentally about. In this case, Marie Curie Intra European Fellowships are primarily focused on mobility and training. The focus is on early career researchers and giving them them the experience and skills they need to progress to senior researchers. It was also noted that there is a “triple-I” dimension to the call: intersectoral (i.e. moving between industry and research), international, and interdisciplinary.
Winning Marie Curie Fellowships funding is tough: proposals which score less than 90/100 are regularly unfunded. It’s not that they’re poor quality – it’s simply that there’s not enough funding available to meet the demand for places, so any bid really needs to stand out to have a chance of success.
The next step is to write the application to explicitly address the review criteria. The five sections in this case are:
- Science and Technological Quality
Getting hold of a copy of the evaluator’s guidance notes is helpful here to ensure you precisely match your bid text to the checklist that the evaluators will use. At this point we split into groups and discussed what we would include in one of the above sections, directly addressing the evaluation criteria. Our group took on the Implementation section and came up with the following ideas:
Quality of infrastructure/facilities and international collaborations of host: Describe the state of the art equipment/facilities in your Department, how much is it worth, has there been a recent investment in labs, equipment or other resources. What international collaborations has the department had, give evidence of previous funding. What international networks are the department involved in and how can the fellow tap into these networks. Has the department hosted previous MC fellows, what is the department‘s current postdoc portfolio. What lab and desk space will be made available for the fellow.
Practical arrangements for the implementation and management of the research project: How will the fellow be managed. Will there be weekly meetings with the supervisor and other members of the department. Tie in regular meetings around the work plan milestones and objectives. Mention any central service support. Research office can assist with the development of IP, what HR training courses are available to support transferrable skills, for example project management.
Feasibility and credibility of the project, including work plan: Think about risk assessment, draw up a risk register. Create a Gantt chart with a workplan, milestones, objectives and deliverables. Hold a list of Key Performance Indicators that can be monitored through the lifetime of the project. Where you have a general statement on how you handle IP at the host organisation, include this here. Research & Business Support Staff can assist in managing IP and there is national funding available in the UK (HEIF) to support innovation.
Practical and administrative arrangements and, support for the hosting of the fellow: Mention the real practical support here, are there good schools and nurseries nearby if the fellow has a family, will the fellow get assistance in finding accommodation before they arrive. Does the international Office have any welcome events or clubs that the fellow can take part in while they’re here. Mention here any support that is available in the Language Centre for language skills development.