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The Horizon 2020 oversubscription issue is growing fast. To be clear, the problem at hand is the notably fast rate at which applications are surpassing the calls. With far more applications than budget to cover them all, most applications are simply left behind. In this post, we will discuss the main reason such an “issue” has formed in the first place and what actions are causing it to  further spread. Most importantly, we will touch on what can be done to overcome the oversubscription issue.


What causes the oversubscription issue in the first place

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

  1. This program provides the best available funding. This of course cannot sound like anything to complain about – a lot of money, given away as a pure grant, with high funding rates, for multi-annum projects. But the fact of the matter is that everybody wants this kind of funding. Since everybody is interested – they line up and the queue becomes longer and longer.
  2. Less opportunities: looking at the history of the programme, the trend is very clear – there are less and less calls for proposals (per domain, per year). Of the calls available, they are 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 finally a relevant call for your research. Looking for other available opportunities, you can always try one of the bottom up calls (like FET-Open and ERC), but in many 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.


Now that we have addressed the underlying reasons causing the oversubscription issue in the first place, we can expand on our suggestions for its resolution. We will discuss two parallel dimensions here. The first being a theoretical one, as it addresses potential recommendations for the EC. The second one is more realistic, as it addresses the screening process which takes place before applying.


The simple physics of deadlines and how the EC can fight the Horizon 2020 oversubscription issue

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 comparison to the pre-FP6/FP7/H2020 era, 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 or 8 or 10 million Euro projects. There is also room for smaller research projects in the area of 1-2 million Euro.
  • Improve the evaluation and granting processes – we know they have been working on simplification and faster time-to-grant process. However, it still takes about 8 months, while looking in the past prior to FP6 it took less time. So, it could be done, and doing so will be of tremendous help to the overall process
  • 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 of all that is mentioned above: 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 and 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 researchers have nothing to lose by applying with such ‘half-baked’ projects to various calls multiple times.


By doing so, researchers directly contribute to the increase in oversubscription, which badly affects everyone (including themselves).


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 taking up time and resources. Evaluators must perform a full review for each proposal, even if they think it is not a valid one. Nothing good can come out of overloading the evaluators 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 of the project must kick in. Such screening processes for applicants exist in many universities and companies.


In the industry it is usually more straightforward, as it is almost always directly connected to their business agenda. In large companies, proposals that are not within the company’s core business and that do not follow the core technological expertise, simply are not developed and submitted. Similar screening happens in SMEs, although it is usually less structured.


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. As a constant driving force, researchers are being urged to apply in order to get funded. 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 issue. An early detection of premature proposals, while halting the preparation process, will save time and resources for 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 oversubscription issue being minimized.


In order to give hand to resolving, or at least diffusing, the oversubscription issue, our team has put together a free-of-charge “Go/No-Go” service. The service provided can be used exactly for the purpose of early screening and detection of premature or, alternatively, competitive projects. We are happy to provide this free service to anyone who is considering to apply to Horizon 2020. Learn more about our service, and contact us for any additional questions.

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