The first two years of Horizon 2020 show that the current Framework Programme (FP) for Research and Innovation has attracted more applications, more actors and more high quality proposals than ever before. Various evaluations also show that research funded through the FPs is among the best ways to obtain added value from European public investment.
While the attractiveness of the programme is complex and multi-layered, one of the most important aspects to consider is the national funding situation. EUA is in the unique position to link its member consultation feedback analysis with the EUA Public Funding Observatory data, which reveals that universities that see national funding opportunities go down are more attracted by the programme, but tend to be less successful in their bids to Horizon 2020. This result needs to be considered by national funders in their future investment strategies.
Many universities are less successful with their proposals to Horizon 2020 than they were in the 7th Framework Programme (FP7). The latest figures published by the European Commission for 2014-2015 reveal that the situation is even worse than expected by the sector, as almost 90% of all and nearly 75% of high-quality proposals remained unfunded. The expanding attractiveness of Horizon 2020 creates more competition than the system can sustain with the current levels of funding and thus greatly reduces the efficiency of public investment.
The adverse effects of the oversubscription and low retention rates for top-rated proposals affect the entire research and innovation landscape in Europe in several ways. Novel research ideas that could benefit the economy and society in the long term remain unfunded and the exceptionally low success rate risks further deterring top researchers from participating in the programme. Institutions also accumulate multiple losses through a costly proposal development cycle.
Basic calculations show that between 30 and 50% of the funding that countries receive from Horizon 2020 is the equivalent to the costs of the total number of applications prepared, successful or otherwise. Even though the cost of putting together a research grant application can vary significantly (with some complex proposals costing more than 100,000 euros) an average proposal cost of 50,000 euros allows one to estimate the waste in the system at 1.4 billion euros, which is tremendous when compared to the 5.5 billion euros allocated for the first 100 calls. As European universities are largely funded from public budgets, it is the tax payer who ends up paying the bill.
In this context, one of the key priorities is the reduction of the costs generated at all levels and the improvement of the overall system efficiency. The most important action is to increase the FP budget in order to fund the top proposals. In addition, strategic financial planning at the national level must privilege a holistic approach taking full account of EU research funding. National funders can only get a realistic view of the return on investment in national participation in Horizon 2020 if they integrate all these additional costs. Governments also need to foster university participation and competitiveness in Horizon 2020 through sufficient core funding and additional support mechanisms.