The Horizon 2020 over-subscription disease is growing fast. It can be noted that applications are over-growing the calls, which means most applications are left behind. This post will go over the main reason such a “disease” has formed in the first place, what actions are helping it to spread and, on the other hand, what can bee done to overcome this problem.

Horizon 2020 over-subscription disease is formed when the supply outgrows the demand.

Horizon 2020 suffers from significant over-subscription in most areas, which results in poor success rates. It discourages many from applying, as they believe that due to over-subscription they do not stand a fair chance. There are many experienced applicants that point out that winning a Horizon 2020 project nowadays is like playing the roulette.

Is that really the case?

The good news is that lady luck, although important, is not the sole or the dominating factor. The evaluation process, despite its inherent problems, is reliable and in most cases produces a good selection of projects.

The bad news is that the over-subscription problem still prevails, by distorting the overall results and success rates. Since Horizon 2020 and ERC in particular offer the best funding instruments in the area, it seems that this problem is not going to disappear anytime soon.

So, what can be done to manage the Horizon 2020 over-subscription disease?

We will discuss two parallel dimensions here, the first being a theoretical one, as it addresses potential recommendations for the EC, doubtful to be applied. The second one is more realistic, as it addresses the screening process, taking place before applying.

The simple physics of deadlines, or how the EC could fight the Horizon 2020 over-subscription disease.

In the context of the European funding programmes – the present Horizon 2020 / ERC and past FP7, FP6, FP5 and on… – the main reason for over-subscription is twofold:

  • The program provides the best available funding: a lot of money, given away as a pure grant, with high funding rates, for multi-annum projects. Everybody wants that kind of funding, and since everybody is interested in that, they line up and the queue becomes longer and longer.
  • Less opportunities: looking at the history of the programme, the trend is very clear – there are less calls for proposals (per domain, per year) calling for larger projects with wider scope per call (open to a wide range of interpretations). It is not uncommon to wait a year or two until there is a relevant call for your research. Or, you can always try one of the bottom up calls (like FET-Open and ERC), but in most cases your research may not fit what they are actually looking for, despite the openness of these calls (FET-Open for example).  Add to that the fact that here as well, there aren’t too many opportunities and the success rate is dropping.

Here is the simple physics: Having great interest in this funding scheme on one hand, while allowing less and less opportunities to get in, generates pressure. It is as simple as that. Decompressing this pressure is vital.

There are numerous ways in which the pressure can be decompressed:

  • Have more calls and topics
  • Have more deadlines per call (in the past, the frequency reached 3-4 deadlines per year per area)
  • Fund smaller projects – it will benefit many as the money will be better distributed. Not all projects are born as 6-8-10 million Euro projects. There is also room for smaller projects in the area of 1-2 million Euro as well.
  • Improve the evaluation and granting processes – we know they have been working on simplification and faster time-to-grant process. However, it still takes 8 months, while looking in the past before FP6 it took less time. So, it could be done.
  • Having faster evaluation process will go hand in hand with having more deadlines (like in the past). It will allow improving rejected projects and re-submitting them as soon as possible. This improvement process could be beneficial to all.

It is no secret that the system favours the opposite: larger projects, stemming from less frequent calls, resulting with fewer projects to manage and review. We hope this will change, but unfortunately the trend goes to the other direction.

Now, since this is the situation with the EC, let’s proceed with a more realistic approach and take the responsibility into our own hands.

The collective responsibility, or why the selection process has to kick in

Due to the relatively low success rates of the Horizon 2020 programme, there is a tendency to submit many proposals, even if they are not good enough, or don’t fully meet the call criteria.

The motivation is clear and mainly relies on the conception that the programme is challenging enough, and success rates are low anyway, so they have nothing to lose by applying with such ‘half-baked’ projects to various calls multiple times.

By doing so they directly contribute to the increase in oversubscription, which badly affects everyone.

The key here is to understand that we all have a collective responsibility when submitting a proposal in general, but specifically if submitting bad or half-baked proposals:

  • It overloads the system
  • It badly affects the evaluation process: It takes up time and resources, as the evaluators have to perform a full review for each proposal, even if they think it is not a valid one. Nothing good can come out of overloading them with such proposals.
  • It increases the oversubscription effect: the plain statistics include all the applications that were submitted. The amount of “bad proposals” and how it affects the statistics is unknown. Without having the poor, the bad and the half-baked proposals, the overall statistics will improve dramatically.

What can be done?

This is where proper screening should kick in. Screening processes for applicants exist in many universities and companies.

In the industry it is more straightforward, as it is almost always directly connected to their business agenda. In large companies, proposals that are not within its core business and that do not follow its core technological expertise are simply not developed and submitted. Similar screening happens in SMEs, although it is usually less structured. Still, it is fair to say that industrial companies and SMEs submit less proposals in general (compared to the academia), but when they do it is almost always more focused and developed.

In the academia the situation is a bit different. In many faculties there is an overall ‘grant-based-atmosphere’ which drives researchers to pursue grants at all times. They are being urged to apply in order to get funded, as a constant driving force. This results sometimes in poor and half-baked project proposals.

A proper informed screening process in the academia can be effective in reducing the oversubscription. An early detection of premature proposals, while halting the preparation process, will save time and resources to everybody, and will eventually reduce oversubscription.

We believe that it is a collective and mutual responsibility to apply informed professional screening processes across the board. If done, a more managed application process will kick in, hopefully giving hand to the Horizon 2020 over-subscription disease being kicked out.


Categories: Horizon 2020